Monday, July 04, 2011

Book Review: Punching Out, by Paul Clemens

Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant felt like it took me about a year to read. In reality it only took a few months, in fits and starts, but it was kind of a slog. It's a shame because the book had potential to be really interesting. Tom bought it after we saw the author interviewed on The Daily Show (that link goes to the video of the interview), and it really seemed like a fascinating topic. In fact, it is, but I felt there were some major problems in the execution.

The book was, ultimately, just kind of meandering and not especially well written, I thought. Clemens kept things roughly in chronological order, but not always. It wasn't exactly that it was confusing to keep track of what was going on, but there didn't feel like a lot of narrative momentum. Possibly this is because (as he said in the interview) Clemens did not really have a thesis. He set out to describe what happens after a manufacturing plant closes down, but he wasn't really trying to make a point about anything. Which is fine; I'm not suggesting he needed to be writing with some sort of agenda in mind in order for the book to be any good, but it might have helped tie everything together a bit more cohesively.

The biggest problem - and I may well be alone in thinking this - was the kind of half-assed attitude Clemens conveyed in his writing. It felt, reading the book, like he was one of those kids in high school who thinks it's totally uncool to try hard. There was a lot of, "Yeah, I started taking notes through this meeting thing, but then it got pretty boring so I stopped and mostly just doodled in my notebook instead." He clearly spent a lot of time in the plant, talking to people and observing the goings on, but then it was like he just wanted the book to write itself without any additional effort on his part. I don't know. I'm curious to see if Tom picks up this vibe from the writing as well, or if I'm just crazy. I fully accept that I might just be crazy. But I found Clemens's slumpy sort of writing to be distracting and off-putting, so it was hard for me to stay super engaged in what he had to say.

In the end, it's an interesting subject for sure. It's definitely telling that there are more jobs to be had, in some parts of the U.S., taking things apart than there are putting things together. I think Punching Out could have been more engaging if it had been given, say, the Mark Kurlansky treatment, but for what it was, it wasn't a totally worthless read.

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