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.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
LeBlanc’s book follows a sprawling extended family in the Bronx — the protagonist is ostensibly the girlfriend of an incarcerated drug dealer, but much of her family is included too. It took 11 years to report.
Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell
Mitchell is perhaps best known now as the man who eventually stopped writing his profiles of the down-and-out — but still lively — personalities in the hidden corners of New York. (As the legend goes, he just continued to go to work every day, type behind the walls, and produce nothing.) But the body of work he produced over his several decades at the New Yorker is some of the most amazing, humanistic writing about the poor that you’ll ever read.
The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighbourhood, by David Simon and Edward Burns
Of course you’ll recognize those names from The Wire, the great novelistic fictional depiction of the bad streets of Baltimore. But David Simon wrote nonfiction, too, and this book, which follows the residents of just one corner, is amazing. Read it rather than watch the miniseries, for my money.
Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, by Leon Dash
This book is less well-known nowadays, which is a shame. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles for the Washington Post about Lee, a woman whose “fall” into teenage motherhood and prostitution in her early life did not follow the standard conservative lines.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans
This famous book about Depression-era America was an early work of immersive reportage, too, not that it’s typically spoken about that way. Agee and Evans spent months among the tenant-farmer families profiled in the book.
Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, by Jonathan Kozol
Kozol’s books, all of which could have been included on this list, tend to be a bit more argumentative than the others. But this one, which profiles a hotel/shelter not unlike the one figuring in today’s Times story, is the one I’d most recommend.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum, by Katherine Boo
Last year’s nonfiction breakout transformed Katherine Boo from the journalist all the other journalists quietly admired to the Big Deal that she is today. It’s also a superlatively lovely account of life in the slums that reveals the somewhat universal nature of these stories.
How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis
Riis’ language is a bit hard on our contemporary ears, but this book is really the one that started it all. And his descriptions of life in the tenement slums, well; again, there’s something all these stories have in common no matter when and where they operate.
The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell
The master polemicist chronicles the lives of the poor in England, chronicling their lack of entitlement before anyone was really talking about “entitlement” as a class issue. Representative quote: “A person of bourgeois origin goes through life with some expectation of getting what he wants, within reasonable limits. Hence the fact that in times of stress ‘educated’ people tend to come to the front; they are no more gifted than the others and their ‘education’ is generally quite useless in itself, but they are accustomed to a certain amount of deference and consequently have the cheek necessary to a commander.”