Year 2 / Book 4: The Unwinding

4) The Unwinding by George Packer.

The subtitle of this book gives you an insight into what it is about: An Inner History of the New America. I downloaded it when on offer probably 2 years or more ago, and had largely forgotten it was languishing on my Kindle. Which was a mistake.

This is an extraordinary book. Packer is a New Yorker journalist and he chronicles changes to American life (economic, social, political, industrial) through individual people’s lives. Several of these (a black factory worker turned activist; a politico turned disgruntled lobbyist; an eco-fuels pioneer; a declining city) he returns to as their lives develop and evolve. These are interspersed with pen portraits of key American individuals: Oprah, Newt Gingrich, Andrew Breitbart, Peter Thiel, Robert Rubin – each is enlightening and, largely, damning.

It is extraordinary for a number of reasons: firstly, because the people are brought to life effortlessly and brilliantly to the point that I was so involved emotionally with their lives: I’ve never felt so strongly about light rail in Tampa or the decline of Youngtown’s industry. One family’s plight towards the end of the book is utterly compelling and heartbreaking in equal measure. Occupy Wall Street’s rise and fall is inspiring and infuriating; though not as infuriating as the sheer and evident unfairness of the post-crash winners and losers. For these reasons alone, and many more, it would be worth reading.

But it is also extraordinary in its prescience – I’m trying to avoid the minute-by-minute coverage of everything Donald Trump does at the moment, but if you want to understand his success, this book would be my first port of call. For here you find the collapse of mid-American industry, the unmet expectations of Obama, the separated bubble of Washington, the evidence of how nothing has improved for the poorest (while the rich thrive regardless), the rise of divisive political language (Gingrich’s cold and deliberate use of language is chilling), the growth of a radical, libertarian media, the erosion of trust, the tangible lack of opportunity to make a life for oneself. Not to mention how key individuals featured here – like Breitbart and Thiel – have only grown in relevance and importance. Breitbart’s director now sits in the White House, and Thiel is one of the US’ most influential entrepreneurs and tech billionaires (as well as a libertarian Trump supporter).

A final thought: where is the book that does the same for the UK?

This isn’t an easy read: it’s upsetting and anger-provoking. But i think we may need a bit of that right now.

Score: 10/10

Here’s a passage describing one of the main protagonists sitting on his porch (Bojangles is a fast food place):

Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses—always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking—chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk—and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.

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