I am part of that small subset of Vogue readers who tends to pick up an issue depending on who's in it, not who's on it. Among the must-reads for me: Julia Reed. I like her style, which pulls the reader along on a warm current of words, then steers them directly toward a trenchant observation or two.
So I picked up The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story in part because I had been surprised and pleased by Vogue printing Reed's articles about life in post-Katrina New Orleans. I mean, this is a magazine that treats a $1.6 million brownstone as a charming starter home; to have a writer openly assail the social complacency that begat the terrible class divides and subsequent tragedy in New Orleans is positively sansculottian.
The House on First Street is a pleasant weekend read. Just imagine you're getting letters from an old college chum with whom you've always been friendly, if slightly baffled by your very different backgrounds. There's no doubt that Reed has spent her life swaddled in a downy cushion of family money: you don't manage to maintain two households, one in Manhattan, on the usual writerly salaries, much less do as Reed does and pay a housekeeper to watch TV with your lonely cat.
However, when reading The House on First Street, I came to perceive Reed's privilege as an advantage. Because she was not at all distracted by financial concerns post-Katrina, Reed was able to turn her attention to what the movers and shakers in the city and state were or were not doing. And she's clearly capable of offering the kind of critique that can influence people's actions -- thereby changing people's lives indirectly down the road.
To me, it makes no sense to resent Reed for her fortuitous selection of parents and subsequent capitalization upon opportunities that presented themselves by virtue of birth and station. And personally, I liked her low-key, casual reportage of her own life; I didn't perceive any snobbery or smugness there. In other words, Reed does not strike me as someone who was born on third base and mistakes that for hitting a triple. But oh, my gosh, there are plenty of people in the Amazon.com reader reviews section for The House on First Street who plainly think otherwise. Otherwise, why would the words "Marie Antoinette" be tossed around so much?
As Katrina unfolded, it seemed that one of the legacies it would leave behind would be a frank discussion of poverty and civic institutions in America. Reed's book is not meant, in any way, as a polemic on that subject. But the reviews are a vox populi reminder that New Orleans is no longer leading the nightly news, but many of the problems it has are far from addressed.