I went to a book group recently. This still feels unusual. I was well into my seventh decade before I went to one. I haven’t done much reflection on why I have not been a book group kind of guy. Certainly I read, perhaps too much, but for me books are a solitary activity. They are read alone, and a group discussion doesn’t seem to enhance the pleasure or the accomplishment of the reading. I do discuss books, but almost always one-on-one with the wife or the daughter or with a reader friend.. Then the intimacy of the conversation seems to enhance the solitary pleasure of a book, and the one-on-one with a knowledgeable reader can lead to the kind of discussion that is less likely in a group, especially groups that are as large as the book groups that are held in my summer community.
My reluctance may also stem from a feeling that a book group is a feminine activity, and it is true, that while I know men who are members of book groups, overwhelmingly I know women who go to these organized book discussions. If a subconscious perception of non-manliness is a reason for my non-attendance, it is ironic because I have never seen myself as a manly man, and I would like to think that I embrace my feminine side at least as well as most men. (There is something funny, something incestuous or hermaphroditic in the phrase “embrace my feminine side.”)
It would have been doubly ironic if I had avoided the recent book group because of my feeling that it was a feminine activity. The book under discussion was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. The author chronicles his struggle to both embrace and rise above his roots and succeeds, landing him at Yale Law School which he never calls The Yale Law School as a friend and former Dean of that institution always did. He bemoans the hillbilly culture that labeled studying and learning as “feminine” and a male with good grades as a “pussy.”
Vance and his book have gotten quite a lot of play. Read this book, many have said, to better understand the rise of Trump. The book, however, makes no such claim. Vance does say that he is concerned that jobs have gone overseas and that the middle class is harder to attain for those without a college degree and then pronounces: “But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
The author, of course, can tell us what the book is about, but the reader, even if admiring the book, does not have to agree. Hillbilly Elegy is not about what happens to individuals when their economy sours. It is not about a way of life with an increasing societal collapse. The book does not show behavior getting worse or better depending upon the availability of good jobs. Indeed, he writes about a couple making over $100,000 in small-town Ohio who were unable to manage their lives. He does not show that the social decay has increased; instead he documents perennial family and work instability, childish family “honor” that justifies violence, child abuse, ignorance, and alcohol and drug abuse that has existed for decades in a “hillbilly” culture.
In fact, however, this flawed culture goes back much further. Appalachia, of course, saw honor killings as early as the nineteenth century—think Hatfields and McCoys. (The Feud:The Hatfields and the McCoys by Dean King  makes for interesting reading alongside Hillbilly Elegy.) A century ago, H.L. Mencken wrote, of course entertainingly, about the Appalachian culture that promoted ignorance over education. And if you care to look, you can find many other examples from our history describing basically the same culture that Vance now chronicles.
Vance’s personal story is interesting, but he says little about how to change this well-entrenched culture. Instead, he suggests that the best way to escape its powerful pull is to marry outside the culture. Or perhaps, as he did, go to The Yale Law School and marry outside the culture. In other words, not much hope is really offered for some big change.
And he ignores a bigger fact about America in general. We proclaim ourselves to be the land of opportunity where hard work and education mean you can move up the economic ladder. And for much of our history, mobility was much easier in the United States than in Europe or other developed nations. This is no longer true. We have close to the lowest upward mobility in the advanced industrial world. (Go look it up.) A child born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income scale has only a 30 percent chance of making into the top half of incomes, and this percentage is less than it is for France, Germany, Sweden, and Canada. Increasingly, the income ranking of a child’s family determines the income ranking of that child as an adult.
Add to this another phenomenon. Whites forty-five to fifty-four with no more than a high school education, a cohort that contains more than hillbillies but surely has a sizeable number of them, are now dying at a higher rate than they did in 1999. At the end of the twentieth century, deaths in this group were 601 per 100,000 but in 2013 were 736 per 100,000, a shocking, disturbing, and largely unknown increase. Whites in this age group with no more than a high school education were four times more likely to die as those in the same age group with a college degree.
In other words, it is always been unlikely that the hillbilly kid could break out of his background, but now larger trends in this country make it is increasingly unlikely that someone in the bottom half will move up.