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Poor People

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  953 ratings  ·  169 reviews
because i was bad in my last life.because allah has willed it.because the rich do nothing for the poor.because the poor do nothing for themselves.because it is my destiny.

These are just some of the answers to the simple yet groundbreaking question William T. Vollmann asks in cities and villages around the globe: "Why are you poor?" In the tradition of James Agee's Let Us N
Hardcover, 434 pages
Published February 27th 2007 by Ecco (first published 2007)
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Aug 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Why are some people rich and other people poor?

Do you consider yourself poor? Why are you poor?

Do the rich have any obligation to the poor?

These are a few of the questions Vollmann asked of an array of people he encountered or sought out around the world. All of the people he asked would be considered “poor” by any standard.

The god-like culture-creators at the New York Times said of this book “for all its ostensible daring and exploration, this is a book full of foregone conclusions. Strip away
Aug 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
WTV asks questions that need to be asked, in a manner that inspires and provokes, but without the arrogance to pretend to provide any answers.

There is a recognition of his failures, of the impossibility of a "fix", of the chasm between his experience of "the poor" and their experience of themselves, that makes the whole work infinitely more powerful than your standard reportage or essay on poverty.

His photographs are frequently stunning, though they are very poor quality in the paperback.

An i
Aug 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: vollman
Vollmann is a bit of an enigma, but one thing that certainly can be said is that he has travelled a great deal in his various roles and taken copious notes. This work is told in the first person, so Vollmann manages to keep the focus off himself when he chooses to, but he has a clear focus, poverty. He simply asks people why they are poor and notes their responses. The rather raw photos are all taken by him as well. Vollmann states his parameters well:
“Because I wish to respect poor people’s per
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Aug 19, 2017 rated it did not like it
Every Homeless Man a Hipster('s Dream) which, typically, the author travels the world in search of vindication of his desk-bound preconceptions.

Come On, Feel the Mitsein

Nothing needs to be done about poor people (or the underpaid and unpaid), because, when confronted by a Cornell graduate (majors in comparative literature and desk-bound world travel), they're philosophical about their fate.

Here's the traveller in his own revealing words:

"...what had I done? I threw a little money and some a
E. G.
Income Table

--Poor People

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
“Why are some people rich and other people poor?” -- Mr. Vollmann

"Daddy, how does a person get to be like that man?" -- Ms. Dice

The two questions are quite close. Why is it that....? How does it come about that....? Yet the positions of the questioners and respondents are not parallel. Ms. Dice is in a position of disturbed curiosity ; Daddy, very likely, is in a position of perplexity. Does he know? But neither is involved directly in this question about a third person. Mr. Vollmann asks his qu
Sep 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Who's intellectually well-equipped enough to define poverty? The answer is; no one. Who should we consult when this question begs at all of us, even the most reasonable? Maybe William T. Vollmann? Maybe base curiosity is the best sensibility to have when asking this question? So many questions arise. The symptoms, according to Vollmann, seem to be invisibility, deformity, "unwantedness", dependence, accident-prone-ness, pain, numbness, estrangement, and amortization. And how poetically defined t ...more
Jun 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
It's possible that William T. Vollmann enjoys writing more than any person on earth. He also loves journalism; however, he claims to be a terrible journalist. If this is true, then I say journalism is a joke! Vollmann brings more passion to his subjects than anybody writing non-fiction today. He doesn't portray people in an "objective" light, or even try; he shows people the way HE sees them--and he makes this clear without feeling the need to constantly remind us of it. An important (and admira ...more
Ben Gran
Apr 19, 2008 rated it did not like it
I didn't even finish this one. Fascinating premise (author travels the developing world, interviewing impoverished people and asking them, "why are you poor?"), but the writing was dense and overdone. Lots of navel-gazing, lots of focus on the writer's own internal monologue and personal journey; I would have preferred a more straightforward journalistic approach. The story should have been about the poor people, not about the writer's sophisticated liberal-arts-degree reactions to the poor peop ...more
Apr 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The problem that I have with so-called or self-identified Social Justice Warriors is that they have an agenda—nominally, to right the wrongs of society as they perceive them. It’s not that I’m against equality for all, obviously, it’s that I, by default, have a problem with agendas. Agendas compel people to seek out x in order to facilitate y coming to pass. Applied to the sphere of social justice, what I see all too often is a lack of contextual understanding on the part of the would-be hero. E ...more
Nov 05, 2012 rated it did not like it
As W. Vollmann travels the world to meet poor people, his interest never strays far from how he felt about this or that. It becomes quickly obvious that the "poor people" who are the supposed subject of this book are nothing more than a vehicle for the author to examine his aching conscience/consciousness. I was sick of this guy by the middle of the introduction, but kept trudging through hoping for who knows what. Aside from some mildly interesting travel-writing kind of exoticism, nothing rede ...more
Sep 30, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2012, poverty
So, is it me or does this author rub anyone else the wrong way. At best he comes off as a pretentious hipster at worst a condescending jerk. I really found his writing style insufferable. Probably the best example I can cite is when he is describing a subject he is interviewing. The style is third person narrative, then smack dab in the middle of this he breaks the fourth wall so to speak and says of the subject "I took a picture for you". I get that in his mind he's thinking it's a great litera ...more
May 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
A melancholic look into the harsh reality of impoverished people across the globe... or are they truly impoverished? Not only does Vollmann rip your heart out with some of these accounts, he also invites you to question whether they *should* rip your heart out, making you consider these poor people’s lives from their own “normalities” instead of from our own rich, privileged viewpoints. It has changed my worldview considerably.
Jan 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating read. William T. Vollmann travelled around the world asking people in poverty why they thought they were poor. The answer? Poor People. Impossible to summarize as the answers are as numerous & personal as human beings themselves are.

The answers seem shaped by location and culture, though, as well as by individual personality. Some answers? Karma, fate, political oppression, God's love/hate, personal failure, societal failure...the lists go on.

And along the way, Vollman tel
Nov 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
Vollmann is surely one of the sharpest, most well-read people I've ever come across. He balances Montaigne, Aristotle, and Adam Smith while interviewing prostitutes, homeless people, and vagrants, all of whom he could consider his friends.

His ability to contextualize/juxtapose the lives of these people not only against his own life but of the life of the implied reader is amazing. That kind of self-awareness can be cripplingly awkard (looking at you dfw) but Vollmann has such a sincerity in his
Nov 14, 2020 rated it liked it
Vollmann will tell you he is a rich man in relation to his subjects--the so called "wretched of the earth"--both in relative and absolute terms of wealth. He seeks them out (the un- and underemployed, sex workers, unskilled laborers) where they reside, in situ as it were (under bridges, in tenements, and in tents) in desolate places all over the world, and interviews them: "Why are some people rich and some people poor?" and, "Do you consider yourself rich or poor?"

Vollmann is distinctly aware
Sep 25, 2012 rated it did not like it
Rambling, unfocused, disorganized, cynical at times and narcissistic, Vollmann seems more interested in putting himself between the reader and the ‘poor person’ being interviewed. Shallow and fragmented, I was expecting something more along a Studs Terkel treatment; this was Stud Terrible.
Jun 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One's opinion of this book will depend a great deal on how much credit one is willing to grant to Vollmann's intent and his occasionally distracting style of conversational writing. This is not a journalistic essay (Vollmann states this early on), nor a policy piece, though there are elements of both here. Vollmann often diverges into contemplation of his own role as a comparatively rich man in a world overwhelmed with nameless, faceless poor.

Vollmann's book goes some way toward assigning faces
Wes Allen
Jun 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: vollmann
My response to the poor has been primarily negative and perhaps uninformed: When I see people in poverty in the U.S., my gut reaction is that they must be lazy, alcoholic, drug-addicted, or mentally unstable. Often, I cast judgment upon these people. My lofty assumption is that most of them are poor by choice, even if they don't realize it--that their situations are rooted in foolish decisions. Is this true? Probably some of the time. Is it always true? No.

Vollmann's approach to the poor is more
Apr 28, 2007 rated it liked it
What better way to pontificate on both poverty at the global level and the individual level than travel the world talking to poor people and asking them why they are poor? Vollmann indeed does exactly that.

Poor People is an easily readable book. For those of you seeking anecdotes from poor people, this book is for you.
Feb 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
While not the sociological inquiry that more rigorous (read: academic) minds might require to be satisfied, I appreciate Vollman's reflections and noodlings on the concept of poverty. He is aware that he is open to accusations of 21st-century Levi-Strauss-ism, which in my opinion excuses a multitude of sins.

Vollman's greatest asset is his approach. He uses a four-way mirror to "show" the poor people across the globe. This mirror is comprised of: Vollman's first-person reflections; his reportage
I was so interested in the premise of this book - a worldwide exploration of why people are poor. The poverty Vollman relates is shocking, but I was continually distracted by the writer as the narrator. It was ok towards the beginning if a little haphazard, but towards the end I felt like he just crashed and burned.

Ultimately, what I remember about this book is the author's continual reflections on himself, the drug use (I thought this book was about poor people?), and some random half-told sto
Oct 02, 2008 rated it liked it
Ths is Vollmann's own travelogue series of interviews with poor people all over the globe. I began reading this in August with a view toward the November 2008 election and it just reduces me to tears sometimes because the kinds of suffering offered here are so unbelievably balanced by the gratitude that some of the poor feel that they still have so MUCH!. We are talking destitute here. ON the other hand, when I see the kinds of injustice inflicted on these people by most of the rest of us by imp ...more
David M
Sep 11, 2015 rated it liked it
(I did enjoy this book, but I think Vollmann's strengths as a novelist and journalist - his naive willingness to listen to other people no matter what they say - fail him as an essayist. To ask 'Why are some people poor?' is an inherently political question; it involves broader issues of history and justice. If from the outset you're determined to forego any systematic analysis, well, the answers you get are going to be pretty limited. Which is part of why I have no real interest in reading Risi ...more
Jun 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
I found a copy of 'Poor People' by William T. Vollmann in a Montreal bookshop at the end of May. I bought it because his name rang a bell, and because the subject matter seemed intriguing, and because the book itself was a handsome thing. A hardback printed on thick paper with nicely deckled edges. I had actually gone to some trouble to pack light for that holiday to Canada, and so I felt like a bit of a fool carting away this and a nice first edition of Libra by Don Delillo, but whatever.

Jul 25, 2018 rated it did not like it
I was under the impression that this was a "landmark" book about poverty around the world. The author bills the book as such in the dustjacket and introduction. He claims to have traveled around the world and interviewed people living in impoverished conditions.

I read the first chapter last night which was about three generations of women living in a slum in Thailand. He was more or less on point for that chapter, though he included several photographs of women who did not neatly match his desc
Andrew Sare
Feb 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
"If it amused me, I, a rich man, could choose a few poor people to be my pets, and then I could feed them in the most joyfully self-congratulatory manner; but it remains incumbent on me to avoid entanglements with the millions of other who live in the rain."

Rather than using economic theory, Vollman looks at poverty by interviewing people around the world asking them: "why are you poor?" Despite his claims otherwise, to me Vollman is fearless in the lengths that he is willing to go to understand
Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath
Rounded down from a 3.5.
Dec 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a hard book to read. It is like stopping yourself as you step over a homeless person and taking the time to get to know him/her. Why are they there? What do they think of their plight? Why are some people more fortunate than others? William T. Vollmann traveled the world and talked to the most desolate people. He tells their stories in this book. It is not an easy world to travel inside of.

I've never read an ethnography like this. Vollmann is not restrained by the formula of academic wr
May 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A little dated, and something of a disappointment in the way that it focuses on the poor of other countries, where they are very easily "othered." That said, Vollmann writes an eye-opening/mind-opening log of encounters with, well, poor people. In doing so, he creates an extended meditation on what wealth is, and what it means, and the troubles that poverty brings. One of his striking observations is that poor people --and indeed, all of us who are chasing the buck-- are "amortizing" our own bod ...more
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William Tanner Vollmann is an American novelist, journalist, short story writer and essayist. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.

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“Life is an extended camping trip. With a leaky, inferior tent one runs no more risk of rain than anyone else; but if it does rain, the person in the cheap tent chances soaking in his sleeping bag, and possibly dying of hypothermia.” 2 likes
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