Narrator Danny Campbell beautifully illustrates this blunt and righteous text. Photojournalist and consciousness objector Jacob Riis unearthed the plight of New York slum dwellers in the 1880s via brutally honest photography. He was a pioneer of art in the cause of social justice. He also wrote singeing indictments of the other half, the people of privilege who are indifferent to and often profit from the misery of the poor. His criticism is specific to the New York of that time, but on a broader note it highlights the legacy of inequity among mankind. Riis is not the dispassionate witness; he is deeply committed to shaming those who pretend ignorance of inequity. Campbell’s quietly angry voice shares Riis’ turbulent emotions, which range from outrage to grief.
How the Other Half Lives was a pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future muckraking journalism by exposing the slums to New York City's upper and middle class. How The Other Half Lives quickly became a landmark in the annals of social reform. Riis documented the filth, disease, exploitation, and overcrowding that characterized the experience of more than one million immigrants. He helped push tenement reform to the front of New York's political agenda, and prompted then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to close down the police-run poor houses. Roosevelt later called Riis "the most useful citizen of New York". Riis's idea inspired Jack London to write a similar expos on London's East End, called People of the Abyss.
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I am, perhaps unwisely, writing this review before finishing the book, but I felt eager to proclaim it a revelation. I've read Riis before, but found it quite spellbinding to listen to the work, which is one of the great portraits of the city. Riis gives the sort of memorable character to New York's buildings and streets that Dickens gave to the residents of London. By today's standards his work is an odd blend of journalism, lore, data mining, and Victorian anthropology. Neither sociology nor maudlin reformism. The stereotypes may offend the sensitive, but are equitably distributed. While any graduate student can easily critique, deconstruct, or even psychoanalyze him, Riis truly stands on his own. While he is not Engels, the facts and descriptions make a vivid account of the problems that gave rise to the American Progressive Movement, and I would grant them a certain status as literature or art, especially if you look at his entire body of work along with the innovation of the flash photographs. What is surprising is how well the audio version stands up here without the photographs. Indeed, the famous images have had the effect of burying the writing. The reader does a good job, but his rough American drawl has a character of its own and may not be to everyone's taste. I might have preferred some attempt to replicate Riis's own voice, which I have always imagined as clipped, ironic, and heavily Danish. Though I have not yet finished as of this review, I can see that the book might drag without an overarching theme or natural narrative. Still, I would highly recommend it as a vital work of American journalism, history, and literature. And it a surprisingly colorful, interesting listen minus its celebrated photos. Actually, if might be nice to add the photos for an accompanying iPod slideshow.
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