This is a micro-review of three books that make me come over all evangelical. All three by the same author: Michael Pollan. Oh boy.
The first, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is a book that you have to read. I’m serious. Get a copy. Beg, borrow, steal or buy one now, and start reading. Especially if you are an American – you really need to know what is going on with your food. And stop it! For the rest of us, it’s a warning of just how bad things can get, and what we MUST guard against. If you care at all about a/ your health, b/the planet, c/food, d/morally acceptable business practices, then you really need to read this book. Because they are all linked, and in some seriously scary ways. Like the link between American obesity and the worldwide spike in petrol prices (hint: corn). Ok, I was already one of the converted. But the book scared me in ways I didn’t think possible. It really is life-changing. I’ve bought copies for my family members. If I could afford to, I’d buy dozens and leave them on park benches for people to find and read. It’s a genuinely important book.
Essentially it’s about how we (mainly the USA) produce food. He tracks three “meals” from their origins, to the plate. The first part looks at agrichemical corn, and what it is doing to America. This section is by far the biggest, and the most scary. The other two sections – Grass (beef and vegetables) and Forest (wildfoods, hunting and foraging) – lack the same impact, although they’re still interesting. And eye-opening. But you’ve already heard the worst. The later chapters just show you how repetitive human greed is.
Book two is In Defense of Food. Essentially it’s an exposé of the Nutrition Industry. It’s the natural follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and considers the question “If we’ve made so many advances in nutritional science, why are so many people dying of metabolic diseases?” (Hint: nutritional science.) He offers what may be the simplest and sanest ever guide for rational eating:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
The book is an explanation of what those three statements mean (not quite as simple as it looks), and how far from them the Western diet has come. You’ll sleep well enough after reading it, but you will probably find yourself taking longer doing the shopping. Again, a life-changing book. But also a life-affirming one.
The third book, The Botany of Desire, uses four plants to examine the relationship between humans and the natural world. Correction: it examines how four particular plants make use of human desires to further their own relationship with the rest of the natural world. Each of the four plants uses a particular human urge (or possibly “craving”, “desire”,” fetish”, and/or “obsession”) to further its own ends. Apples play on our lust for sweetness, tulips on our love of beauty, marijuana on our never-ending search for ways to leave our own skulls (aka “intoxication”), and potatoes make us their tools by offering us the illusion of control.
It’s genuinely fascinating. Makes you look at the natural world in an entirely different way. A glorious riot of history, urban legend, culture, politics and biological history. Learn the link between prohibition and the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”; between childbirth and old rope; between viruses and stockmarket collapses. Entertaining, informative, and ever so slightly provocative.
Enough of message. Are they well written? Oh yes. He has the same friendly-intelligent manner as Oliver Sacks or Robert Winston. I’m sure there are people out there who think that his work is bilge, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s the subjects, not the manner, that they have a problem with. Most of all it’s how sane he is. He makes good sense, and offers plenty of supporting evidence for his assertions.
- For sheer pleasure: read The Botany of Desire.
- For your own health and well-being: read In Defense of Food.
- For the sake of the planet and food chain: read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Read all three. Agree with me, disagree with me, whatever you like. You’ll be better informed, if nothing else. And if you want to get rid of them (?!!), they are all very highly wishlisted on BookMooch – so there are a couple of hundred people who will gladly take them off your hands.
Why the hell don’t we have people like Michael Pollan running counties?!