Material World: A Global Family Portrait

by Peter Menzel, Charles C. Mann, and Paul Kennedy

Sierra Club Books, 1995

256 pages

When I was in college, I often treated myself to a Friday or Saturday night prowl around the campus library (yes, I know, I’m a nerd). Those were the most relaxing hours I had all week–the quiet was heavenly, I got a mind-clearing break from classwork, and (best of all) I let myself read whatever struck my fancy.

It was on one of these prowls that I spotted Peter Menzel’s Material World: A Global Family Portrait, a UN-sponsored collection of portraits of families from around the world. Each family was carefully selected as typical for its nation, and each nation was selected as typical of its region or representative of key global trends.

To create the book, either Menzel or a colleague spent a week photographing and filming each family’s daily life. The photographer also produced one Big Picture: a portrait of the family outside their home, with all (or most of) their material goods displayed around them.

The photographers interviewed the families extensively and, in many cases (even those of extreme poverty), lived with them for the full week of the visit. The photographers’ writeups of their experiences appear in the book alongside the photos, country “bios,” and statistics about the nations and families.

As you might imagine, the result is a study in contrasts, by turns mesmerizing and unsettling. When I first read it, I was utterly fascinated by the differences in wealth and living patterns, and the book was a definite boost to my budding environmentalist and feminist sensibilities.

Which brings me to why I’m reviewing Material World on this blog. It’s not the type of book I normally write about–there’s no story to follow, fictional or otherwise, and it’s not primarily about women.*

But Menzel and his colleagues are persistent in their attention to the plight of women and girls, particularly those living in developing nations. They point out the wide educational gaps that often exist between boys and girls in these countries, the ceaseless drudgery many impoverished women and girls endure, and the death-by-inches daily oppression they suffer.

Remembering all this, I decided a couple of months ago to check the book out of my local library and read it with my daughter. But she seemed only mildly interested. She didn’t pay much attention to the writeups or stats, and she looked at each photo for only a few seconds. I tried to point out particular images and facts, but she just seemed to breeze past them. All in all, it was a disappointing experience. I wondered whether any of it had actually registered.

Then, a couple of weeks later, my daughter suddenly brought up the book in conversation. She remembered some of the images and facts I’d pointed out, and she wanted to know more. The same thing happened again a few days after that. I had, it seems, forgotten the efficiency of her young, uncluttered brain.

We’ve since had some really productive talks about education and why she’s so privileged, especially as a girl, to have access to it. We’ve discussed how families in other parts of the world get by with much less than we have, and how children from many of those families (especially girls) have to labor for long hours in addition to–or instead of–attending school. And we’ve talked about how poverty perpetuates itself, how hard it would be to learn in school if she went to bed hungry every night, what it would be like to spend all of every day minding livestock or fetching water.

In other words, the book struck a chord and got her thinking. It broadened her understanding of what being human means to people whose lives are very unlike her own. It grew her compassion and her appreciation for her own blessings. And when she’s older, hopefully it will be one of many books she’s read that will inspire her to action.

*Faith D’Alouisio, Peter Menzel, and Naomi Wolf later published Women in the Material World, a women-focused companion volume to Material World. It has a heavier focus on personal interviews and so is probably more accessible to tweens and teens than to elementary-age children. Menzel and D’Alouisio have also published Hungry Planet and What I Eat, similarly formatted books about global eating habits.

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