Book Notes: Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland

This is the nonfiction book that the Oscar-winning movie is based on, and since I loved the movie, of course I had to read the book.

For 3 years, Bruder followed around mostly retirement-age people who live in their vans and make money picking up temporary gigs at Amazon warehouses, beet harvests, and campsites. The most fascinating thing in the book is the contrast between the resilient, strong, and hopeful retirees and the mopey Millennial Bruder who writes about them. As she follows them around, Bruder can’t figure out why they don’t feel victimized or pathetic. It’s got to be because they are white! she decides at some point. If they were black, police would have already murdered all of them on sight!

Bruder can’t understand the world outside of these angsty, infantile truisms. She also fails at the jobs that the vandwellers who are twice her age carry out. The last chapter of the book is especially revealing as Bruder worries and frets incessantly over the possible obstacles that might arise once Linda May, the retirement-age nomad she’s researching, starts building the project of her dreams. Linda May’s optimism and capacity to enjoy life in the midst of the greatest hardship offers a striking contrast to the fussy anxiety of the pampered Bruder.

Chloe Zhao, the director who brought Nomadland to the screen made the correct choice to excise Bruder from the story completely. The book was published in 2017 but we all know what happened then. The generation of Bruders freaked out over COVID and George Floyd, destroyed the economy for everybody, unleashed sky-high crime rates, and is now trying to devise ways to muzzle everybody who doesn’t stand in awe of their “lived experience of trauma” of some sort.

Bruder is a fine writer and, I’m sure, a nice person. But there’s an enormous emptiness at the core of her self that is particularly evident when she writes about the nomads – evicted, broke, old, sick, yet happy, undefeated, and free in a way she’ll never be.

4 thoughts on “Book Notes: Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland

  1. Wow, this was so beautiful and spot on!

    Sadly, this emptiness and feeling of futility is something I see all too frequently among my students. And yet I can’t fathom it: they are young and beautiful, they have everything in their favour, the world is waiting for them to make their mark. What gives?

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    1. “they are young and beautiful, they have everything in their favour… What gives?”

      In the US the nomads she’s writing about mostly grew up in the great compression – a period of less stratification, more societal solidarity and overall more optimism – when even social turmoil often seemed like it was for the best. Compare the violence of the civil rights movement and how it did little to dampen enthusiasm with BLM and Antifa nihilism.
      Bruder grew up in the 1980s (I’m guessing) a far more fractious and anxious time when status striving and zero sum games were starting to take over (IIRC that’s when newspaper stories about how young people would have less affluent lives than their parents were starting to be churned out).
      That’s not all of it but it’s likely a part of it…

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    2. I see that in my students, too. Part of it is opulence, having grown up never really wishing for anything. Another related part is never cultivating an internal life: pursuing passions, curiosity, creativity, engagement with nature, art, other human beings. I see them in college, so many of them just trying to tunnel through coursework with as little learning and as high of a grade as possible, as if the purpose of college is not to learn anything but to get a degree and go on to what? What do they think awaits them in the corporate world? Job? Ability to buy a house? What? And these are not poor struggling kids who can’t make ends meet.

      Too few take the time to let their coursework sink in, to take some time to, for example, do a little research as undergrads. To take some fun classes in the arts or humanities, because for most of them this is the last time they are at a university.

      What do they think awaits on the other side of the degree? There is nothing there or anywhere unless you have an internal life, curiosity, zeal to engage with the world somehow. Sooner or later you will feel empty.

      A few years ago a student said his dad had told him, “Life is you pay taxes and then you die.” I was horrified. Can you imagine being raised by such a person? I was shocked and told him, not sure it mattered, that life is great, that there are exciting jobs to have, and people to meet, that having kids is awesome, that he’s young and is getting a great education and the world is his oyster!

      OK, I am rambling now. I think if parents model materialism and squash all of kids’ attempts to develop an internal life in the name of optimizing their suitability for the job market, of course you will end up with really sad young people who don’t see a purpose. No one can give you a purpose, but apparently plenty of people work hard at preventing young people from seeking theirs.

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  2. It’s almost as if Jessica Bruder has not learned that money can’t buy happiness. Meaning and purpose do not come from financial security–I don’t care what the mainstream narrative is. From your telling, it appears she had a prime opportunity to learn there is more to life than she knew about–and she rejected it.

    This reminds me of the premise of a book I read years ago called, “Where the Heart is” by Billie Letts. One of the characters “tells a lie so big it eats away at him” until he sets out to make it right. (He felt his baby’s heartbeat and then promptly left his pregnant girlfriend at a Wal-Mart, where she ended up giving birth.) Our whole American culture has believed a lie about prosperity and wealth and it is eating away at our collective conscience. I’m not saying wealth is bad or that the American Dream itself is wrong; I’m only saying money isn’t everything–as evidenced by the people in Nomadland.

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