Coming Apart: A Book Review

Rarely do I find myself thinking, “I’ll just read one more chapter before I go to sleep” when I’m reading a non-fiction, sociological study. However, I thought that several times while reading Coming Apart. I missed out experientially on 20 years of the cultural shift in the upper class that Murray describes. However, his descriptions of the self-isolating patterns of the elite resonated with observations that I’ve made during my education and in my career, and the interactive quiz that Murray gives in chapter 4 is thought provoking. Imagine my self-congratulatory backpatting when I discovered that being a college professor put my in Murray’s broad elite category (though marginally so; I’m guessing that Murray had professors more so in mind that hold tenure-track positions at tier 1 research universities). I took his quiz, hoping as I answered each question that I was placing myself more concretely into the elite category until I pulled up short and realized that Murray advocates that the narrow view of the elite and their lack of exposure to the struggles and reality of the lower class is one of the things harming our culture.The fact that the quiz identified me as either a “first-generation middle-class person with working-class parents and average moviegoing habits” or a “first-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents” then gave me hope as I read the book. That resonated with where I am in life now. I realize that I have a decent amount of education but a lack of awareness about how it can best be used to make a difference. I’m on a search to figure out how I can best do that.

One of the elements of this section about the upper-class shift that I appreciated most was Murray’s perception of the audience that would read this book, an audience that still retains a healthy amount of what he describes as social capital. He argues that this social capital is mismanaged by the upper class, who choose to turn inward into self-isolating communities that embrace shallowly-held values and lose sight of the greater value of making a difference in the overall health of the country. He follows up later by pointing out what the upper-class can do to make a change.

At the same time, Murray points to four interesting factors on the decline in the lower class: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. Many potential readers of the book may be skeptical to read on when they see the list of factors that Murray isolates, but I encourage those readers to hear Murray out. He builds a convincing anecdotal and statistical case to argue that the erosion of these social pillars has stripped the lower class of the necessary stability to provide safer neighborhoods, growing economies, and grassroots community improvement initiatives. In this section, I appreciated how Murray handled statistics. I’m not a sociological researcher and don’t have a background in statistics, but the statistical studies that Murray uses to present his case were contextualized well within the argument, making them interesting rather than a chore to read. As a Christian, I found it quite interesting to note his choice of the four factors. He doesn’t mention the Bible one single time in this section, yet studies done by researchers subscribing to a wide range of ideologies are nonetheless noting that marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity are all virtues that are vital to community health.

Finally, in the last section of the book, Murray outlines what his upper class audience, who he hopes is alarmed after reading parts one and two, should do to help contribute to the solution of the growing divide in our culture — a divide producing ineffective policies to address the crime, unemployment, and failure to thrive in the lower class and a divide perpetuating media that continues to erode the social pillars that Murray argues are necessary for a healthy country. As a person on the fringes of what Murray describes at the upper class, I found his call to action personally challenging. My only complaint with the book is that Murray didn’t make this call to action thorough. However, I believe he expands on the vision for action in his other books and provide plenty of additional resources for understanding the issues due to the well-researched nature of his own book. After reading 300 pages, my thinking on the topic wasn’t exhausted. Rather, Murray, as good writers and researchers should do, made me desire to explore the issues further, using what social capital I have to contribute to solutions.

I hope many individuals read this book; if you’re in my local audience, I’d be happy to loan it out to you. Even if you don’t agree with everything that Murray says, the topics that he addresses should be the topics of  the public square, producing discussion about how to reverse a growing class divide that is creating a great deal of angst and misdirected solutions in the formation of political policy and non-profit work.

I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review of the book.