Books, a bike, & a bearded MD.

One of my friends has a rather large stack of books in his house that I’m responsible for, and I feel bad about it. Some of the books are my favorites that I’ve given him, some I read – and loved – last year in school and mailed home, some he ordered after I wrote about them on this very blog, and one of the books is now a finalist for the National Book Award (yay!!!!!) and signed by the author, the very kind (and tall) Chris Bachelder, who nearly took me out with his bicycle one morning this summer in Sewanee.


Well, actually, I may – may – have stepped directly into his path. However, given that Chris Bachelder is up for a National Book Award and I am sadly unpublished outside of magazines, we will let him take this one. And, should his book win, I will surely turn the whole episode (which he can’t possibly remember, given its utter insignificance) into a poignant essay entitled Bachelder: How a Bicycling National Book Award Winner Swerved to Avoid Me…Then Knocked Me Down With His Mad Writing Skillz.  

See how I made it all about me? Obviously, there will be all sorts of press appearances after my essay is published, and I’ll need to track down the security camera footage of Chris Bachelder innocently trying to cycle to class while I lurch down the sidewalk like a drunken squirrel with an iPhone pressed to one ear, a leaking water bottle in the other hand, and a hundred pound backpack tearing the rotator cuff off my shoulder. {Damn you, 800 lb. Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism!}

“Test results reveal: the bicycle did not hit you. YOU hit the bicycle.” *Bachelder high-fives Maury and does a victory lap around the stage*

Anyway, back to my friend. I feel slightly guilty about his Leaning Tower of Literature, because his leisure time is approximately 1:17 to 2:03 am, and the books just keep piling up…which means that I’m not only taking up valuable side table space, I’m also becoming a burden on his life in an entirely new way, beyond the 500 ways that have already been well-established on this blog.

So I thought I’d do him – and you – a favor and just tell you about the book I  just finished, called Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.


Vance grew up in Ohio, not far from his family’s roots in Kentucky, and had a complicated (to put it mildly) childhood. But for the loving stability of his grandmother (Mamaw, a character who surely needs a book of her own), Vance would have been just another statistic: a scrappy, fists-cocked white kid whose life was derailed before it began by the poor choices of his parents, and the paucity of role models in his universe. But Vance got out — not just out of Ohio and Kentucky (places he obviously holds dear), but out of the cycle of underachievement, poverty, addiction, and hopelessness that surrounded him. He got out of the mindset that said that the world he knew was all that was available to him.

I think Vance would agree that his last bit is the real achievement – more so than his successful stint in the Marine Corps, his completion of undergrad in record time, and his graduation from Yale Law School. None of that would have been possible had he not seen a glimpse of a better life, and felt that it was within his grasp.

Think about it: if you’ve had some measure of success in your life — personally, professionally, in your education — odds are very good that somewhere along the way, you got the radical idea that success was attainable, not just for other people, but for you, too! Whether it was your parents, siblings, a teacher, your spouse, a colleague, a character in a book…someone, somewhere, gave you the notion that you could achieve your goals.

It starts with believing there’s a point to this sort of thing.

I am NOT saying that other people are responsible for your success, so don’t have your secretary send me hate mail. What I am saying is: Consider this. What did you witness in the world around you that made you think you could accomplish anything at all?!  And how would your life have been different if you’d been surrounded by an utter lack of achievement? Despair? A complete lack of engagement with the concept of education?  Relentless anger? Addiction? Profound poverty? A habit of blaming anyone and everyone else for all that was wrong?

Vance writes, “Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward.” (p.193) Vance then relates a story about a hometown acquaintance who quit his job because it required him to wake up early…and then blamed his lack of employment on the national economy. (There are numerous firsthand accounts of similar behavior in the book, by the way.)

Attitudes and ideas: similarly destructive, with widespread fallout.

Here’s the point: that mindset — the one that makes it far too easy to move personal responsibility off my own shoulders and onto someone else’s — is toxic. It says, in essence, I’m powerless to affect change in my own life. It says, Things will never be better than they are now, and probably will be worse, so why bother?  

And, perhaps most damaging, it says, There is no hope.

Sorry, Mister Whiskers. We were looking for something a little tougher.

For those of you who’ve been reading all along (thank you!), we keep coming back to hope, don’t we? But not the pie in the sky, cotton candy, fluffy kitten kind of “hope.” That’s not what we’re about here.

We’re about steely-eyed, tough, tried and true HOPE. Hope that wears Doc Martens and a safety pin in its nose. Hope that eats despair for breakfast, kicks regret down the stairs, and formulates a plan for change by dinner time. Hope the way Viktor Frankl described it, the way Bishop Tutu put it, the way Dr. Jerome Groopman summed it up.

Groopman: Brilliant. Bearded. Bespectacled. Badass.

“An optimist says everything is going to turn out just fine… But in fact we know that things often don’t turn out just fine. Hope is different. Hope is clear-eyed, it has no illusions. It sees all the difficulties, all the problems, in a very realistic way…and then, through those troubles, through those problems, it sees a possible path to a better future.”

That’s what Jerome Groopman said, and that’s what J.D. Vance saw: a possible path to a better future.

If you’re in a position to influence others (and if you’re alive, you are — see what I did there?!), I hope you’ll remember this idea of hope, and start spreading it outwards. J.D. Vance had one person — his loyal Mamaw — who shone a light on his possible path. Vance did the hard work, but it was because of his grandmother’s influence that he even knew that another path might exist for him.

So, fingers crossed that Chris Bachelder will win the National Book Award!  And you’re welcome, buddy, that I’ve saved you from adding yet another book to the teetering tower next to your special chair. May hope — foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, street-fighting hope — be your constant companion. Yours and mine.

For more about the importance of hope: Et lux in tenebris lucent.  For more about a few books we love (and a poem!):Word Nerd

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