The New York Times today ran a groundbreaking story about a 12-year-old child who, growing up in a Brooklyn homeless shelter, leads something of a modern Dickensian existence. While stories about the poor do not run as often as they should, they also constitute something of a prestige genre in nonfiction writing. Many of the great names in journalism have been those who have doggedly pursued the stories of the poor. The appeal of these stories is the way they challenge others; the focus on humanistic detail with which they necessarily qualify the established narratives about poverty — you know, all those slogans politicians shout about bootstraps and the like. The irony is how seldom these powerful narratives actually seem to move the gears of power. It’s hard not to notice the themes repeating themselves again and again in these books across ages and time periods.
If you “enjoyed” the Times story today — recognizing that “enjoyment” is a weird word to use here — you might want to check out some of the books on this list, which constitute some of the very finest in this kind of reportage and writing over the last half-century.
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, by Alex Kotlowitz
Kotlowitz’s 1991 book about two young men growing up in the Chicago projects is a modern classic of the genre. It took him three years of reporting to tell their story.