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James F. Richardson
Our Worst Strength
We are all settlers on our own personal frontiers. It’s our national way of life. Individualism. America has now taken individualism to its logical extreme like no other society on Earth. And the results are mixed. Radical autonomy without wisdom and lots of social support is a dangerous gift. It can even become a curse of self-destruction. This book explores how individualism affects the five major domains of American life that comprise 80% of our waking time - work, fun, food, friends, and family. Using fresh national research on older Americans' life experiences, his training as a cultural anthropologist, and his own awkward life experiences, Dr. Richardson has crafted a first-of-its-kind social history of the late 20th century and what it yielded to us as a nation. Part One - How to Make a Hyper-Individualistic Society in Seven Easy Steps Part Two - How It Became Awkward at Work Part Three - How We Got Lost in the American Fun-house Part Four - How We Came To Eat Whatever, Whenever Part Five - How We Turned Friends into Entertainment Devices Part Six - The Atomization of the American Family Part Seven - The Future of Individualism in America Dr. Richardson argues that individualism is not an inevitable way of life. We can take our gifts of autonomy and calibrate them to a more community-oriented future. We have to truly understand what we have before we make changes we would regret as a country.
“Radical autonomy is terrific if you’re trying to escape something horrid,” Richardson notes in this incisive, illuminating debut, but in other cases the American ethos of individualism, especially as represented by the “overwhelming lifestyle choice of the modern urban world,” can be confusing, overwhelming, and anxiety-provoking, especially for young people finding their place in life. Richardson likens contemporary Americans’ 20s and 30s to a sort of Rumspringa, a time of “exploring opportunities physical, intellectual, and income related” without “significant structural guidance, coaching, (and even therapy) from the broader communities in which we live and work,” an approach that, understandably, yields “sadly unequal outcomes” that favor “neurotypical, white men from upper-middle-class backgrounds the most.”

An anthropologist, Richardson persuasively explores the impact that growing up and living in an increasingly “hyper-individualistic” society has on careers, family life, personal happiness, and more. He examines contemporary tendencies toward loneliness, weaker friendships, over-consumption, and the costs of the “freedom to ignore the past.” He does not promise academic rigor, and draws heavily on his own experience of neurodivergence creating challenges in navigating “the confusion and ambiguity” of shifting societal rules. But as he considers telling examples like the rise of potlucks, the decline of formal club membership, and the waning influence of elders on young people, Richardson takes welcome pains to avoid nostalgia, and he acknowledges when he’s generalizing. Richardson’s a shrewd, witty, sometimes outraged observer who urges readers to approach individualistic impulses more critically.

Richardson’s life and anecdotes from interviewees illustrate his most striking arguments, such as the peculiarly American brand of individualism feeding the belief that “failures, traumas, and tragedy (whether failed relationships, getting conned abroad, or old-fashioned physical abuse)” are personal outcomes whose social context “fades into the margins of our moral memory.” The book sprawls some, but the strongest sections—like a consideration of snack culture, the erosion of meal culture, and the rise of obesity—dazzle.

Takeaway: Sprawling, dazzling exploration of the costs of American hyper-individualism.

Comparable Titles: Robert D. Putnam; Peter Callero’s The Myth of Individualism.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A