The Book Club

Kidder’s Home Town and Suarez’s Old Neighborhood

Dear Alan,

There’s no place like home, but where’s home? In recent years many authors have advanced various versions of the premise that the small town or traditional urban neighborhood is where people belong–places where nobody ever moves away and everybody knows your name. In this line of thought, sprawling suburbs, trendy gentrification, and the instant-growth zones of the Sunbelt are bad for the soul, wrong for kids, and are diluting the country’s community values. Such themes can be found in contemporary books that include your own fine work The Lost City, which extols Chicago neighborhood life of the 1950s. This sentiment informs the two books we are here to discuss, Home Town, by the esteemed Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, and The Old Neighborhood by Ray Suarez, learned host of NPR’s engaging intellectual talk show “Talk of the Nation.” These are different books, but they are joined by their sense of yearning for a manner of life that change-obsessed society is presumed to have passed by at warp nine.

Home Town follows the days and thoughts of a dozen or so current residents of Northampton, Massachusetts, Kidder’s home and a Berkshires burgh so lovely, livable, and human-scale that it is widely looked on as a modern Brigadoon. Written with tremendous elegance, Home Town displays all the reportorial energy, knowing eye, and warm human spirit for which Kidder is rightly celebrated. (Quick disclosure: Kidder and I are both contributing editors of the Atlantic Monthly, but we’ve never met.) The book also exhibits many of the shortcomings found in Kidder’s work, such as the books House and Among Schoolchildren: wandering prose, reluctance to distinguish between pertinent detail and detail for its own sake, lack of a point. I found I had few objections to Home Town, but I’m not sure I learned much from it either, other than that life is bittersweet, which most readers know going in.

In The Old Neighborhood, Suarez covers broader ground, the postwar expansion of the suburbs and what this movement did to the old urban neighborhoods left behind. His principal thesis is that burbs and commuting have dehumanized the country. (Some reviewers may hail The Old Neighborhood in hopes of being booked on “Talk of the Nation,” so I’ll skip the middleman and offer a direct suck-up: Ray, you look mah-vel-ous!) Suarez does not write as well as Kidder, but his thinking quotient is high: The Old Neighborhood is alive with ideas, information, and provocative assertions. I found myself disagreeing with Suarez regularly, but that kept me reading, and presumably disagreement is good news for Slate ‘s “Book Club” format.

Alan, if it’s all right with you I’d propose that we try to address these questions, along with whatever questions strike you:

Of Kidder’s book:

  1. Does conventional wisdom now romanticize the small town and neighborhood life of a generation past to the exclusion of their defects, such as social regimentation and closed-mindedness?
  2. What should we make of “nonfiction” writers who change the names of their subjects?

Of Suarez’s book:

  1. Given the postwar population boom, wasn’t it 100 percent inevitable that suburbs would be built?
  2. Aside from having more cars and more square footage per person, are the suburbs really that different from the city?
  3. Did the postwar, mainly white migration to the burbs really doom the center city or simply trigger a cycle of urban change, just as the arrival of European immigrants had triggered urban change a few generations before?