I just completed this book. George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America has rocked me deeply. To say I recommend it is a great understatement.
I typically don’t read politically-leaning books. They generally bore the pants off of me, and unless you subscribe fully to one ideology or another, often they fall flat for me. There is no genuine story being told. These books, in my experience with them, require a lot of prior knowledge and are marketed towards a very specific group of readers. When I heard about this book, however, I knew I had to get a copy.
I was listening to “OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook,” one of a series of NPR podcasts that I have come to enjoy over the years because of the fair/balanced approach that is still attempted by the people who produce shows on public radio. In the discussion of this book, I got a sense that it was going to be haunting, depressing, and perhaps a bit darker than I wanted to experience. Still, things like the meltdown of the housing market, the loss of jobs in this country, the economic doldrums that are all around me and have been most of my life, and the disaffection I have towards politics these days all were to be found in these pages. I had some money remaining on a gift card to Powell’s, and decided to make a purchase.
I’m glad I did.
The story follows the recent journeys of people from a wide spectrum of America. Interspersed with these Average American stories are those of some famous people, such as Jay-Z and Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Warren, and it’s the disparity and connections between these celebrities and the story of Tammy, or Dean, or the experience of a couple in Tampa, Florida that holds the book together as a whole.
For me, the biggest take-away is where I place myself in this storyline. I found myself heavy-hearted through most of it. Good ideas were ground up and spat out by politics and social inertia. I caught my breath when I realized that I was not the only one who was beating his head against the wall, and felt betrayed by the long-taught belief that a good education was all I needed to secure a stable life for myself. I have to account for every penny I have. I have the long, dark corridor of job-hunting to traverse over the coming weeks. I have an overwhelming sense of needing to prove myself in this new life of mine here in Oregon, and frankly, that has been the damper on the fire of inspiration and excitement for my upcoming graduation from my graduate program. I mean, now that I’ve got this degree, what am I going to do with it?
This book spoke to all of that. It ends with a glimmer of hope, in a very American Novel sort of way, but only slight. It was a vivid and real snapshot of what life is like here and now in the world I inhabit. It is a historical marker. It does demarcate life in the early 21st century in America and shows the underbelly of where we are now as a country. Packer keeps his distance from some things I wished he’d touched upon, such as the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the global terror question, and perhaps a greater placement of the US in the global environment. Still, it’s not hard to extrapolate where he sees our country in terms of these other issues.
Read this book. If anything, it will make you pause and take a second look at what is going on around you.