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Matthew Desmond finds that Dickens cuts closer to the truth of how poverty really works than nonfiction

For the author of “Poverty, By America,” economics has a human face.

Matthew Desmond, author of “Poverty, By America."Barron Bixler/Crown

In his newest book, “Poverty, By America,” sociologist Matthew Desmond reframes the debate on poverty by exploring who benefits from it and how. The Princeton University professor and sociologist has not been one to shy away from difficult questions. His best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” examined how countless people lose their homes each year. Desmond discusses his work Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. at Boston College’s Gasson Hall as part of the Lowell Humanities Series.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

DESMOND: A lot of new books, such as Jesmyn Ward’s “Let Us Descend.” I’ve read everything by her. I’m also reading Jason De León’s new book about undocumented immigrants, “Soldiers and Kings,” David Leonhardt’s “Ours Was the Shining Future,” and finishing up Hernan Diaz’s novel “Trust.”


BOOKS: What was your last best read?

DESMOND: The pandemic has wrapped up and we are getting books that are auditing our policy response. I just finished Scott Fulford’s “The Pandemic Paradox” and Zachary Parolin’s “Poverty in the Pandemic,” which have both stuck with me. What we did to reduce poverty was really something, and it’s deeply moving to see all the good we did. Then we let it all go.

BOOKS: Are there novelists you think do a good job of portraying poverty?

DESMOND: Early Denis Johnson. James Baldwin, who has been a big influence on me. Toni Morrison has a way of writing about poverty in a very indirect way. Many of her characters are struggling. I was a wildland firefighter when I was in college. One year I took “Beloved” out on the fire line. That book made a real dent in me. I wish more novelists wrote about poverty. I find myself picking up book after book in which the characters seem so economically unburdened.


BOOKS: What about Charles Dickens?

DESMOND: One of the resounding messages Dickens gives us about poverty, and this is where novels hone closer to the truth, is that someone is winning on the back of someone else. I think, in nonfiction treatments of the subject, you often don’t get that tension. It’s almost as if it’s just some macroeconomic thing instead of someone getting over on someone else. Not in Dickens.

BOOKS: What are some of the nonfiction books about poverty that you admire?

DESMOND: Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” She’s very keen to never reduce people to their economic conditions. She writes about poor people’s suffering but also about whether they are beautiful or a bad neighbor. Boo’s funny too. She was a model for me because she refused to reduce poor people solely to their hardships.

BOOKS: What other genres do you read?

DESMOND: A few years ago, for Christmas, I asked my wife for a year of poetry. Then I went down this deep poetry read. It was a challenge for me to read in that register and to read slowly. Layli Long Soldier has this fantastic collection, “Whereas.” I couldn’t access Emily Dickinson, which I feel ashamed about. Maybe I need to read her later. Now I’m working through Auden and am liking his war poems.

BOOKS: Which authors made you into a reader?

DESMOND: I was not a voracious reader growing up. That happened in college. The essay tradition resonated with me, so that drew me to Susan Sontag, Zadie Smith, and George Saunders’s nonfiction. I also started reading more in the tradition of bearing witness to poverty. That tradition goes back to W.E.B. Du Bois and Jacob Riis and carries through to today. I remember reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s “Random Family” in a garage in Minnesota and being deeply affected by it.


BOOKS: Has what you have learned about poverty changed your mind about some books?

DESMOND: I feel an incompleteness with a lot of books on poverty that don’t recognize that there are workers and capitalists locked in a relationship. Just the fact of writing about poor people in isolation from the rich can have the effect of shaping our imagination in a way that doesn’t allow us to get in touch with the root causes of poverty. You have to look beyond the poor. Who’s the man behind the man behind the man?