20 books & 20 lbs (week 40): Disappointment in the homestretch?

My weight loss has stalled out a bit, so that’s a bit annoying. I’m trying not to get too upset, but my appetite has been completely up and down lately. It also doesn’t help that some salty foods have made me feel like I’m retaining Lake Erie; sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which foods contain the salt that causes the problem…so it’s still something I’m working on.

At this point, without further extra effort, I’m on track to have met about half of my weight goal and about 80% of my reading goal. In other words, I need to step it up. BIG TIME. And I really need to stop reading books that are slogs. What on earth is wrong with me picking these chewy novels?! Then again, if all I did was pick up Dr. Seuss books, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

I’m still mentally motivated to continue towards my goals, but I have a general unwillingness to make radical changes to my life that would provide the drastic impacts. Part of that is my stubbornness about needing to have whatever changes I make be things that I can (and want) to continue. I just have to figure out how to get past this without feeling like changes are somehow reducing my quality of life to a point that I find disagreeable. In other words: there’s still plenty of work to do. And speaking of work…


Book 14: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair

I’ve been meaning to read “The Jungle” for YEARS. As a Political Science student (undergrad), I’d heard of this legendary book that described horrifying working conditions at the turn of the 20th century. Sinclair was a journalist at the time, and apparently he’d done some time working undercover in the meat-packing factories of Chicago for an expose he penned for a Socialist newspaper.

The story focuses on the life and great trials of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant to came to the USA with his intended bride and her family, in search of opportunity. What they found instead was nigh unto institutionalized slavery, where horrifying working conditions for living and working were a hamster wheel that was completely impossible to escape. Poor immigrants, especially those with limited English skills, were brought into the factories – if they were lucky – and given jobs that worked them relentlessly, from sunrise until well past sunset, with the constant threat of injury and “losing one’s place”.

Rudkus and his family crowd into a house they are barely able to afford and destined to lose, even with all members of the family above the age of infancy trying to find some way to make nickels or more – often at the mercy of the brutal and inhumane packers. Tragedy heaps upon tragedy, leading Rudkus to run away from Packingtown, but even life as a hobo gives only a brief respite. As he bounces between Chicago proper and the meat-packing district, it seems that Rudkus experiences such impossible-to-survive conditions that you want to reach back into the early 1900’s and give the man a warm coat and a hot meal.

Extremely late in his story, Sinclair finds some redemption for his Job – through the auspices of Socialism. Unfortunately, this is where the book finally and utterly falls off the rails. It took me a while to get into “The Jungle”, as it was a bit of a slog for the first 100-150 pages, trying to figure out who Rudkus was and whether I could make it through his experiences in Packingtown without throwing up. (Seriously, this book gets you to wonder if it’s worth it eating ANYTHING you didn’t grow/raise yourself – ugh.) When Rudkus discovers Socialism and finds his soul freed from the oppression heaped upon it by the exploitative capitalist system, you get the sense that life will finally turn his way. Unfortunately, this is where Sinclair decides to put in a pages-long screed against capitalism that sets up Socialism as the only form of civilized humanity.

Now, as someone who’s studied Socialism and Communism (not to mention free-market Capitalism), I’m not going to say that Socialism is a complete train wreck. It certainly has its advantages, as well as its disadvantages. What bothers me is that the book doesn’t give any satisfactory sense of how Rudkus’ story continues or concludes; once it devolves into the political tract, Rudkus becomes merely the ears through which you hear the Socialist sermon. You never know whether he finds any kind of stability in his new life, and that suggests that the entire book is nothing more than a very large wrapper for a political testimony. I found that incredibly disappointing, not just because I was rooting for Rudkus to catch a break but also because Sinclair effectively discards ALL of his characters at the very end, perhaps proving that his view of Socialism is more about the idea itself than the people who support it.

To the extent that it’s a reminder of how far we have come in terms of working conditions (for many, but clearly not all), “The Jungle” is an incredible view into a truly horrifying world. It’s even worse when you think about how the conditions Sinclair described were based on his real observations of the meat-packing plants and how people lived in Chicago at that time. It’s depressing to think that version of the United States ever existed. It also makes you curious, knowing about migrant labor and poverty (not necessarily tied to such labor) still being issues today…how do we solve these problems without coming together? Frankly, these issues are less about the political umbrellas of Socialism or Capitalism and far more about the moral inclination of human beings to treat all other people as though the right to food and shelter are rights and not privileges.

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