Hillbilly Elegy Book Review
The first thing I did after being assigned the book Hillbilly Elegy is to check the dictionary for both words in the title. Well, Hillbilly means the Billy living near the hill whose ancestors had been feeding the cows for centuries. Elegy means the poetic songs for the deceased lives and experiences.
The book has a dull theme, the cliche story of how the carp has leaped through the dragon’s gate. Usually I don’t enjoy reading books with conclusions already included in the preface. However, the following crucial points do make the reading worthwhile:
First, being surprised by how much you don’t know is the first step to mature. The author and his buddies had no idea that there are parents in the world that don’t constantly fight and hold grudges; neither did they realize that only minority rather than majority of students would fail to acquire the ability to understand or fill out college application forms after four years of high school. We all assumed. The people in the happy families assume that all families are happy and harmonious. The adults with a terrible childhood, on the contrary, had a harder time recognize or accept the fact that only their lives are unluckily different. The mind will play games on the deprived, so the ignorant ones are usually the last to know.
Second, you do need some love and support to keep sane and hopeful. No man exist in isolation. The author is lucky to have doting grandparents, kind elder sister, rich aunts, caring biological father that had been repeatedly refused, and a drug-addict and unstable mother but is nevertheless pretty and attractive so his life is full of non-biological father figures.
Third, the fact that this book is popular in America speaks out that it is a rare story, although it seems the opposite in China. In the year 1991 when I got admitted to university, at least one out of five students are hillbilly. I was a hillbilly myself. But does it mean that China has better system, sustaining the upward movement between classes? My answer is no.
The story of carp leaping in China happened overwhelmingly in the late 1970s to early 1990s, but getting less frequent and even rare in recently years. The reduction of such leaps exist for a reason. Statistically, the genetic and cognitive ability decides, in large part, how students might perform in school and in society. The outburst of leaps from late 1970 to 1990s is a testimony and outcry to the previous large-scale forced relocation of youth in China during the 1950 to 1970s. Such forced relocation broke the natural allocation of the wealth and social resource according to abilities and virtues. The manipulated results won’t last long, eventually.
That’s why many good intentioned policies that set out to address the social inequalities in U.S. and in the world will likely have very limited effects too. The market economy is built on the assumption that free competition is healthy and effective, while manipulation causes low efficiency. However, economy and human beings are so different that efficiency shall never be the only value that matters when the welfare and happiness of large groups of people are involved. Efficiency is sacrificed, for a goal.