As the Great Reading Slump of 2013 continues, I find the only thing that pulls me out of it, even temporarily, is to read books on subjects which are fascinating to me. And I don't mean merely "fascinating"--I find a lot of things fascinating, which is why I usually plow through a lot of nonfiction (and fiction) on a lot of different subjects. I mean fascinating in the sense that I literally cannot look away from a book's subject, much like some people cannot look away from car accidents.
This was the case with the last such really fascinating book I read, David Quammen's Spillover. Learning about viruses and pandemics and monkeys and bats was really, really fascinating. And it happened again last week when I read Charlie LeDuff's new book Detroit: An American Autopsy.
Geographically, I am not all that far from Detroit. But sociologically, I just cannot wrap my mind around Detroit. I read every book I can find on the subject, and for the most part I have found them all unputdownable. So you're telling me there's this huge American city where grass and wildlife are just taking back whole blocks? There's this huge formerly industrial powerhouse where factories have just been left to stand rot, some for fifty years or more? And 700,000 people still live in the middle of all of that? How is it possible?
There must also be something about having Detroit as a hometown that really affects you, because LeDuff is a Detroit native who, after a very successful stint working for the New York Times, returned to the city with his wife and daughter to work for the failing Detroit News. This book, in addition to being a somewhat personal investigation of the city (where much of his family still lives), is primarily a collection of stories that he first told as newspaper articles--the dead man frozen in several feet of ice in the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building; numerous run-ins with the city's corrupt politicians, including mayor Kwame Kilpatrick; city police detectives and firefighters who keep going to work in hopeless situations; and relentless crime and poverty of all types. It's a lot to take in...and yet, once you start reading, you can't stop. Mr. CR blew through it in a couple of nights, and I did the same over the following week.
LeDuff is not a particularly subtle author, but there is something forthright about him and his writing that I enjoy. I also really enjoyed his personal take on the subject, as in an early chapter when he talks about his generation's parents working in factories, and how his generation thought they could make a quicker buck somewhere else (while still thinking, in the backs of their minds, the factories would always be there for them):
"Still, we had all gotten a taste of it, summer jobs sweeping the floor or working the press. It was horrible. The yellow lights, the stink of grease and oil and acid. The unblinking time clock. You walked in the door and the first thing you're trying to figure out is how to get out. If you don't know that about factory work, you don't know anything.
What our generation failed to learn was the nobility of work. An honest day's labor...Instead of working, we figured we could be hustlers and salesmen and gamblers and partiers. Work was for suckers. If anybody had told us such a thing existed, we probably would have tried to become New York bankers and stockbrokers. And I have no doubt we would have been good at it too." (p. 33.)
And what I love about this book is that you can see the honesty of what he's saying, particularly because he himself does seem like a hustler. At several points in the book he references particular news stories he was tracking as ones that would be good to move copies of the sluggishly selling newspaper for which he worked (which strikes me as a bit of a hustling viewpoint). He seems to move through the city like that, hustling a bit here for access and interviews, getting hustled a little bit there by his interview subjects. It's genius. You'll just have to read it to see what I mean.
I thought it was a great book. I was excited earlier this spring when I saw it was coming out, and, rarity of rarities, I was not disappointed. I'd particularly love to see people use it for reading and book groups--there wasn't a single chapter that Mr. CR and I didn't bring up when we discussed it: "Could you believe that part? What about this part?" I love it when a book does that to you.