The Conflict of a Reader

I am listening to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair these days narrated by Casey Affleck whose performance is strong, clear, and very moving. I obviously don’t agree with the customer reviews on in which Affleck’s performance has been called anywhere from “underwhelming” to “poor.”

It is a brave thing I do, playing this book every morning when the sky is still fractured with tinges of gray and orange and if I listen carefully, I can hear birds chirping somewhere just out of sight. Deciding then, when I should be celebrating every vestige of peace, to be transported into the bitter winters of poverty, hunger, disease, and suffering in early 1900s Chicago stockyards takes courage.  It is also easy to do - cocooned as I am in my car with the heater on, the January sun slumbering on until well past 7AM in the unusually warm California winter that allows me to not even reach for a pea-coat when I get out of my car to walk to the office building.

I have read some articles on how this book has made others feel. The horrors of the meatpacking industry laid bare by Upton Sinclair have the power of turning an attentive reader into a vegetarian for life. Shock, disbelief, sadness, disgust, compassion – I am sure readers have felt all this and more for the characters in the book. And I, too, feel all that, but I also feel gratitude. I am grateful to be born in a time when it is important to people to live well and learn what kind of food they are eating. I am grateful that I have had a very different (positive) experience as an immigrant compared to the characters in the book. I am grateful for having an education and to have had the opportunity to choose what to do with my life rather than being a passive spectator of its passing.

There are corruption and discrimination and oppression still in the world, but I am grateful that there is at least some degree of accountability, too, disproportionately present, but there.

There are suffering and poverty and hunger still in the world, but I am grateful that there is a more crisp awareness of all these deprivations, so at least there can be a stronger hope for help to come.

As I continue to read the book, about the squalor and starvation and lack of humanity, I choose to think that this wouldn’t be possible now. I am fooling myself - I know that. The conditions mentioned in the book still thrive, perhaps not in the meatpacking plants, perhaps not in Chicago or in the United States, but in sweatshops and factories all over the world and…I have to mention this…war-zones. I choose to be grateful because I should be. I have seen no despair in my life, not real despair anyway. And when I park my car and pause the book, my jaw is set. I walk out of my comfortable car my heels click-clacking on the asphalt of the parking lot, and I enter my centrally heated office with its large glass windows overlooking a beautiful patio with comfortable chairs and round picnic tables. I choose to be grateful for all this because I have good reason to be, along with the ability to walk away from the book, the impulse to nurse the notion, “Surely this doesn’t happen now.” This, I tell myself, was a long time ago. Those were other people. And what do I know? The winter is never bitter here in the Golden State.