Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Sidenote: I'll be heading on vacation with my sister for the next few days and I am definitely not bringing my computer with me. So, no posts for about a week(: Looking forward to reading time and then reading about what everyone read when I'm back!

This book has been on my TBR list for ages because I've heard people bring it up constantly since Trump got elected. Since I've heard both good and bad things, I figured that I had to read this myself and decide. And now that I've finished it, I've decided I'm in the "this is good, you should read it" camp of people.

Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of J. D. Vance, a guy who grew up in Middletown (Rustbelt city) and Jackson (Appalachian town). Despite his dysfunctional background, he managed to do something that very few of his peers managed to do - go to university and then to Yale Law School. Just the words "Yale Law School" sound impressive to me, but reading about his childhood made me realise that his achievement really was amazing and something of a statistical anomaly.

While J. D. Vance does cite statistics and studies in this book, it is, at heart, a memoir and not an academic study. Its focus is on the story of a poor white family, and by telling that story, I as the reader get to understand the thinking and values of a community completely unfathomable to me. Which is pretty much the power of reading.

I think expectations are important in reading this book. This book has definitely been hyped up and I've seen things like "this helps to understand why Trump won" (spoiler: there isn't really a discussion about Trump, although there is a discussion on why people like Vance's family vote the way they do). But this book is essentially a memoir, not a discussion of a community (though it does a good job of helping one understand/start to understand the community). You also shouldn't expect a comparison between poor white communities and the African-American community, which has also been historically disadvantaged. To repeat: this is the story of a family and not an academic study.

By the way, one random thing that caught my eye is the connection this book has to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which is definitely not something I expected when I read this book. But when J. D. Vance went to Yale, one of his mentors was Amy Chua and she basically encouraged him to write the book. I checked and it's the same Amy Chua (and now I feel like re-reading her book).

If you're in the mood for a memoir, I would definitely recommend this book. If you're like me and live/grew up in Singapore, J. D's life will be completely unfamiliar to you. And that is precisely why you should read about it.


  1. I have a copy of this one, but keep going back and forth about whether I should read it. I am glad you recommend it. Although his background is probably very different from my own, I do imagine there might be some parallels.

    I hope you are having a wonderful time with your sister!

    1. Thank you! It was a really wonderful trip(:

      I took a really long time before I decided to read this too, but I find that it was worth it!


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