I heard about this book when the blog Get Rich Slowly interviewed the author and he said “Don’t buy my book. Email me, and and I’ll send you a digital copy.” (He now has a link to a direct download.) I decided to take him up on his offer.
Many of the comments that have been made about his project have focused on his status a privileged white male, and the concurrent advantages that granted him over others. Most conclude that this “proves nothing.” I believe this is true, but I think they miss the point of the book, and by extension the project. (I also doubt that many have read it, as I don’t see references to the text very often.)
If this young man had taken a backpacking trip through Mongolia, or just down the Appalachian Trail, and wrote of the experiences he’d had, and the people from different backgrounds he’d met; would he be met with such vitriol? I think this book should be taken in the same manner. An adventure story, meant to be inspiring and incidentally educational.
On the text
I read the book in an evening. It’s a quick read, and not very complex. Shepard is not writing prose for the ages, instead, it seems that the words were spilled out on paper as he told himself his story. It’s a conversational, informal narrative. I imagine that it would be the same phrasing he would use if he were talking to you.
This would be a good choice as an alternate selection for a high school reading class. The tone is engaging, the writing is not complex while the theme is, and the author is approachable to a young audience. The fact that Shepard seems to be responding to comments and criticism directly would also make this a good experience for a young reader.
I would have liked to seen more thought put into the ending. Shepard ends the year, having met his goals and even exceeded them to return home to ailing parents. He briefly mentioned how he would put the skills and tips he’d learned into practice in this situation, but it seems like there should be more. Most of the criticism about his “project” has centered on how he didn’t have many of the disadvantages that a “real” poor person would have. If he was / is facing the prospect of caring for two very sick dependents, then that could be a firm rebuttal. But it is not mentioned again.
On the story
I was struck by how closely his experience in the homeless shelter mirrored my own in basic training in the Army. Most of the events he describes have direct counterparts in the military, from meeting people with dramatically different backgrounds, to sleeping in an open room with too many feet and snorers, to “wall-less stalls.” I wonder how different, if at all, his story would have been had he signed up for the military.
I think he glosses over some of the troubles and tribulations he must have had. I kept waiting for setbacks, for crises, for things to go wrong. But the narrative flows along in a relatively placid style up out of the shelter and into the world of the working poor. I believe this was a stylistic choice, in order to emphasize his message of possibility and hope for a better tomorrow. But I think it would have been a better dramatic choice to highlight some difficulties more. For instance, the medical aspects of his broken toe or scalp wound from his fight would have been good choices for this. I hope that if he chooses to write more on this subject, that he returns and deals with this elephant in the room.
The Sum Up:
A decent story, if a bit naive. His interview comments and website indicate that this is not the work of libertarian fantasy that it has been sometimes described as. A fast read, and a good discussion counterpoint to Nickel and Dimed, which is all it wanted to be.