I didn’t think I would like listening to audio books.
Maybe there was some intellectual snobbery involved – believing that listening to a book instead of silently reading it is somehow inferior or doesn’t really count – but for whatever reason I had almost exclusively resisted it for all of adulthood.
My wife has been hooked for a couple of years and has been trying to convince me to join the revolution. With two kids 4 and under in the house, with sleep patterns and other time demands that make sitting down with a book far more of a challenge than it used to be, she found it to be a more efficient and convenient way to devour books. Listen while you do the dishes. Listen in the car. Listen on a lunch break. Listen during those in-between spaces when you would otherwise just be mindlessly thumbing through that day’s social media happenings.
Finally, a couple months back – after noticing that she sure gets through a lot more books than I do – I decided to give audio books a try.
We use an app called Overdrive, which is a fantastic free service. Basically, it connects to the local library system and works pretty much like all libraries function. There are limited copies of each audio book, and if they one you want isn’t available you place a hold on it. Once you get it and download it (onto an iPhone in my case), you have three weeks to finish it before it vanishes. You can check it back out again, but you might have to wait in line again. Three weeks is plenty of time to finish even a longer book, but the time limit also holds you accountable and makes you more apt to think about the book and finish it (at least in my experience to date).
I went through a couple of Michael Lewis books fairly quickly. The first was called “Next: The Future Just Happened,” which came out in 2001 and offered an interesting-in-retrospect look at the dawn of the Internet era. The second was “The Undoing Project,” which is harder to describe but was mainly about psychology and the relationship between two famous psychologists. It was fantastic, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
But the book I was most interested in was “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” written by J.D. Vance and published in 2016. Plenty of other people were also interested in Vance’s recounting of life in Kentucky and southern Ohio – plus the family and class struggles he witnessed on the way to a successful career – but a couple weeks back my turn came.
The timing, as it turned out, was interesting. Perfect might not be the right word. Maybe serendipitous.
I was still in the middle of listening to it when our plane took off Thursday for Cincinnati and the beginning of the 19th Great Baseball Road Trip. By sheer coincidence, our trip this year was taking us to the very areas Vance wrote about. His hometown of Middletown, Ohio, is about 35 miles north of Cincinnati and 25 miles south of Dayton. The town of his family’s origin, Jackson, Ky., is about 85 miles southeast of Lexington. All three of those larger cities were major stops on this year’s trip (along with Louisville, which is further west).
Even as I’ve come to think more in recent years about my own privilege and how it fits into the context of our country, the proximity of the book’s contents to actually seeing the things he was describing in real life served to reinforce (and perhaps in some cases make me prejudge?) the communities I was in during the trip.
Kentucky had an 18.5 percent poverty rate statewide as of 2017, among the highest in the United States. We didn’t see the worst of things since most of our time was spent in or near major cities, but we saw enough of it – particularly in Louisville, where the drive from the freeway exit to Churchill Downs to see some races on Thursday, the first day of our trip, was a startling mix of decay and opulence.
The last mile of the route went through a neighborhood so distressed that I was sure we had entered the wrong address into the phone. Until we could see the racetrack 100 feet away – the same track celebrated during the Kentucky Derby with fancy dresses and the privilege of the ultra-rich – there were boarded up homes and other signs of an economy gone bad.
The poverty rate is improving in and around Louisville from the years shortly after the recession – from 18 percent in 2012 to 14.3 percent in 2016 – but there is plenty of the city that is still struggling.
In Lexington, which upon briefly researching I was stunned to find is both highly progressive and very well-educated – again, my assumptions on display – we chatted with a woman who gave us copious amounts of alcohol at the end of a distillery tour.
After recounting a story of a group of white nationalist protesters who had decided to skip Lexington after gaining wind of a large and boisterous counterprotest group, she concluded with this: “We’re liberals here. AND we own guns.”
In Burlington, Ky. (population 15,000), about 30 minutes from Cincinnati, we stayed our entire trip in an historic home now rented out via Airbnb – apparently a popular thing in the small city these days. Our particular home had gorgeous antique furniture as well as mini horses, donkeys and potbelly pigs on the property. It was in Burlington that I found the cultural pride that Vance often referenced throughout his book.
The poverty rate there has gone up from 2.6 percent in 2000 to 7.9 percent in 2017, but that’s still far better than the national average. At breakfast at the same charming café both Friday and Saturday, things felt folksy but not out of place. World Cup soccer played on the televisions and craft beers dominated the drink menu (though one of them was named Country Boy Shotgun Wedding).
I asked our server if most of the people in the Burlington lived and worked there or if most of them were commuters who worked in Cincinnati, and she said it was the former.
“There are a lot of hillbillies around here,” she said without an ounce of disdain or irony, just matter-of-factly.
“Say hi to Eeyore,” another woman said as we left, referencing the apparently very popular donkey at our Airbnb.
I left the trip thinking Cincinnati and Lexington in particular were wonderful places – at the very least “underrated,” as though I had mentally prepared myself not to like them. I also wondered if Vance’s book had prepared me for a false reality, or if as a tourist seeing just a snapshot of the better parts of all these places I was getting less than a full picture.
Probably a little of both?
The thing is, I’m sure many of the things Vance – who went on to Yale law — wrote about Kentucky and southern Ohio could very well describe parts of Minnesota. Some of his upbringing – not all, not even most, but some – reminded me of my childhood in North Dakota (though he is 8 years younger and that’s a significant economic and generational marker).
I got back on the plane to Minnesota on Sunday night having seen four baseball games on four beautiful days and having eaten and drank my fill. My head was full, too.
I plugged the headphones back in and finished most of the rest of the book on the plane ride home, thinking mostly about what we see and don’t see – and thinking maybe I should take a better look at what is going on around me a little closer to home.