Under normal circumstances, Hollywood’s annual awards season would have already concluded by this time of year. Of course, the past several months have been anything but normal — including for the film industry. In any case, as we enter a delayed 2021 awards season, one movie seems to be the odds-on favorite having already won Best Motion Picture – Drama at the recent Golden Globes: Nomadland starring Frances McDormand. Although that film is fictional, it’s actually based on the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder (who, I just learned, was actually born in the same city as me) with the subtitle Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. So, with an Audible credit to burn and a general interest in the nomadic lifestyle, I decided to check it out.
Unlike what I (assume) the movie is like, the book doesn’t follow a single nomad but, instead, shares stories from several people that Bruder spent time with. Sure there are a few “main characters,” but the variety of sources helped keep the book’s non-fiction narrative running and provided a variety of perspectives.
Speaking of perspective, despite the book frequently referring to monetary troubles of its subjects — and specifically, the impacts of the Great Recession — these issues aren’t often dwelt upon as many of those whom Bruder spoke to preferred to focus on the positives and not the negatives. To that point, a major note in the book is that, while many of these nomads might be considered “homeless,” several preferred the term “houseless” instead. Nevertheless, the economic realities both of and leading to the nomadic lifestyle are still assessed to some degree, while other topics such as race, privilege, worker’s rights are also discussed.
As a content creator, one of the most intriguing chapters of Nomadland was one that covered websites and blogs that grew out of the community and, in turn, continued to grow said community. It was especially interesting to hear how self-proclaimed introverts and loners navigated the social aspect of such activities. I was also struck by a line later in the book where some asked an influential blogger to actually shut down their site for fear that the sub-culture was becoming too popular. To me, this instinct rang the same as “what if everybody tries to pursue FIRE?” — something often asked of top financial bloggers. On that note, there are a few other connections and parallels that could be made to the nomad community and the financial independence movement, with minimalism and living debt-free coming up in conversation.
Somewhat ironically, I happened to be listening to Nomadland at a time when I (and many others) have been unable to travel. Thus, I was especially tickled to hear about life on the road. Similarly, I also got a kick out of hearing more about places I’ve only passed through such as Quartzsite, Arizona, which to me has always just been “the last town before California.” There was even a quick mention of Springfield, Missouri where I currently live, but sadly no fun anecdotes from the city were included.
In the vein of some other journalistic books I’ve read such as Nickle and Dimed and The Unbanking of America, part of Nomadland finds Bruder getting a taste of the lifestyle by not only purchasing a van to travel in but also taking on jobs at both a sugar beet receiving station and an Amazon facility. While this section is only a short portion of the book, to me, its inclusion added an important layer to the narrative. Even if these experiences didn’t result in any major revelations (only a couple of small realizations), it was interesting to hear accounts of what it’s like tackling these tasks as a first-timer.
Something specific to the audiobook that I wanted to mention is that it was easily the slowest narration I’ve ever heard — to the point where I seriously wonder if the file was distorted. This wasn’t a huge deal as I was able to adjust the playback speed to 1.9x (I typically do between 1.3x and 1.5x), but it’s worth noting nonetheless. On the bright side, the increased speed meant I was able to consume the 10-hour book in just over five hours.
Overall, I really enjoyed Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century and can see why it became a best seller and now an award-winning film. What struck me most was that, while it doesn’t exactly glamorize van life, it also doesn’t attempt to convince readers that the subjects aren’t as satisfied as they often claim to be. Additionally, although readers of different political bents will surely have different takeaways from their readings, the book is ultimately about people — not politics. With that, whether you’ve seen the film and are curious about the true stories that inspired it or you just want to go along for a ride with some fascinating people, I’d recommend reading/listening to Nomadland.
Also published on Medium.