I recently finished a book called The Rent Collector. It’s about a woman, Sang Ly, who lives in a garbage dump in Cambodia. She and her husband collect bottles and metal they find so they can sell them in order to make enough money to eat dinner. They also have a baby boy who is perpetually sick thanks to the neverending trash, stench, and lack of nourishment. Their house is 3 tin walls with a tarp for a roof, and they sleep on cardboard. The dump is constantly on fire because methane builds up under the trash and spontaneously ignites, so they have to be careful where they walk. And if that isn’t bad enough, there’s a drunk old woman who goes around collecting “rent” from the inhabitants of the dump. As if the people who live in Stung Meanchy (the dump) aren’t poor enough.
Well, Sang Ly makes a deal with someone who can read, and the book is about her learning to read even though she lives in constant poverty. It’s worth reading.
It’s interesting because I look around me and see all of the things that I think I really need to live that I may not be absolutely essential–things like my computer, phone, food, shower, running water, carpeted floor, matress, to sleep on, and the internet. I’ve been living in this way for so long that I don’t often think about what life might be like without these things. And yet, life isn’t like that for everybody on earth. Some people work all day just to make enough money to eat dinner. And then they go to work the next day just to do it all over again. There’s not much time for entertainment. Just survival.
And yet, we’re constantly told otherwise. We’re told to consume, to spend money, and, in short, to Enjoy! On that note of enjoyment, well, we certainly do live in a society saturated with entertainment (to what degree is or is not this a result of capitalism, an ideology of which money is a, if not the, god-term?). While entertainment is necessary and good to some degree, when it becomes a primary focus of an individual or a society, it can be dangerous. I’ve never read it, but perhaps Neil Postman was on to something when he titled one of his books Amusing Ourselves to Death.