In his recent blog post listing summer book recommendations, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates highlighted his fascination with people who had drastically different upbringings than he did.
“Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir of growing up in rural Appalachia, follows that pattern.
“I am not a self-made man,” Gates wrote in the blog post. Growing up in Seattle, his parents afforded Gates every advantage he could want. So when he read J.D. Vance’s account of childhood in Ohio and Kentucky, living dirt poor and surrounded by ill temptations, the words gave him pause.
The memoir also happens to be one of the most popular books in the US following the 2016 presidential election.
“Through deeply personal stories like these, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ sheds light our nation’s vast cultural divide — a topic that has become far more relevant than Vance ever dreamed when he was writing this book,” Gates wrote.
Vance’s memoir presents a raw view of life among one of America’s struggling populations. Large companies once set up shop in the area of Ohio where Vance grew up, creating thousands of jobs and economic boom. But when they closed, the town was left hollow.
Inside Vance’s family, meanwhile, there was near constant conflict, violence, and instability. He and his siblings moved around a lot as their mother floated from man to man. Vance shares how his grandmother, whom he calls Mamaw, helped him survive childhood and eventually reach Yale Law School.
“The bravest part of the book is the part where he acknowledges that his upbringing haunts his own marriage,” Gates wrote, noting one passage of the book in particular: “Even at my best, I’m a delayed explosion — I can be defused, but only with skill and precision…. In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit.”
Some have argued that Vance’s book unfairly suggests that the rural poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps — and that his criticism of people abusing the welfare system is mostly unfounded. In his blog post, Gates acknowledges the lack of data in the book, but he is willing to overlook that issue because of the story’s larger themes.
“The key take-home for me is that whatever else we do to address the complex realities of poverty in America, we must find more ways to surround children with high expectations and as many loving and caring adults as possible,” Gates wrote.