Author and truth-teller Barbara Ehrenreich dies at 81


Following the recent announcement of her passing at the age of 81, I have reflected on what made Barbara Ehrenreich’s work so meaningful to so many.

Ehrenreich is best known for “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” her work reporting on the inability to achieve economic security while working in low-wage jobs. The book was published in 2001, in the midst of a macroeconomic boom in the United States. The contrarian nature of this is reflected in the (frankly odd) title of the New York Times obituary for Ehrenreich, which calls her an “Explorer of the Dark Side of Prosperity.”

“Nickel and Dimed” does not explore the dark side of prosperity. This demonstrates that the grand narrative of prosperity was a myth conjured up to bring comfort to those who prospered at the expense of the people Ehrenreich brought to life in his book.

As powerful and influential as “Nickel and Dimed” has been, I think another book by Ehrenreich, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (published in 2009) is even more prescient about to what is happening today.

Ehrenreich saw key truths about our society and culture early on and sounded the alarm. Unfortunately, too few people were willing to listen. Consider the general thesis of the essays collected in “Bright-Sided” that an essential American can do, he takes risks to meet an attitude of reward distorts our ability to clearly see the world as it is.

When failure occurs – including things like illnesses over which individuals have power – we are advised to look for the positive, while blaming the individual. This kind of “irrational optimism” has fueled mortgage crises and ensured that the blame lies with the people who made bad choices, rather than a system that incites some kind of collective madness.

As we now see a series of books on the issues of burnout and disengagement or articles about people who “quietly quit” their jobs, we can appreciate Ehrenreich’s prophecy in its insistence that simply believing that we can move towards a positive outcome is a dangerous illusion. .

Ehrenreich was not a growler or a moralist. She was an activist and an idealist who believed that we really could be better off if we thought more clearly and acted more collectively.

While Ehrenreich’s passing is a loss, I take comfort in all the authors and books that make me feel like they channel his focus on being correct on the big questions before others even know the questions exist.

I am thinking of writer and activist Astra Taylor, author most recently of “Democracy may not exist, but we will miss it when it is gone”, a 2019 book that anticipates current arguments about whether or not of our electoral system to withstand threats from powerful actors who do not really believe in democratic principles.

I am thinking of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and his book, “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)”, which clearly and precisely dismantles and then reconstructs the idea of ​​”identity politics” around its original concept – a way to bring more people together around shared values ​​– instead of relegating everyone to individual ideological camps.

And also Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of “Thick”, whose essays ask us to look closely at what we think we know and to examine our group identities so that we can move beyond those identities to a deeper understanding. wide of the world.

Like Ehrenreich, these authors are directly concerned with the world as it is, not with what we would like it to be.

They speak truths, often before many people are ready to hear them.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities”.

Twitter @biblioracle

Biblioracle book recommendations

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you read

1. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

2. “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

3. “Oh William! » by Elizabeth Strout

4. “It Ends With Us” by Colleen Hoover

5. “Daisy Jones and the Six” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

—Trina P., Chicago

For the first half of Katie Hafner’s “The Boys,” you’re grappling with something of a mystery. After that, your heart breaks a bit, and then the book tries to put it back together. A very involving trip that I think Trina will enjoy.

1. “Fairy Tale” by Stephen King

2. “Recursion” by Blake Crouch

3. “The Body Scout” by Lincoln Michel

4. “The World According to Garp” by John Irving

5. “The Woman” by Meg Wolitzer

— Becca T., Aurora

An interesting mixture here of fairly direct realism, to the completely fantastic. I’m going to split the difference a bit with a novel that’s all about baseball, future ecological collapse, and authoritarian rule, “The Resisters” by Gish Jen.

1. “Let the big world go round” by Colum McCann

2. “The Witch’s Elm” by Tana French

3. “The Nix” by Nathan Hill

4. “The Chicago Coast” by Stuart Dybek

5. “The Maid” by Nita Prose

—Jennifer P., Chicago

There’s something about the vibe of Ben Lerner’s “10:04,” a mix of dark and light, macabre and wacky, that makes me think Jennifer will like it, based on her recent readings.


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