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2011 Reading Challenge~~Book #6

Jane Eyre is not going as fast as I had hoped, so when I began to see that I was not going to get it finished this week, I began listening to an audio version of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. I spied it at the library, had heard of it, and thought it looked interesting. Unfortunately I didn't much like it.

Pollan makes some good, commonsensical points about what we should eat: fresher is better than foods that have sat around awhile, whole foods are better than processed foods, don't believe everything the nutrition and medical community tells you, for a few examples. The problem is, I already knew all this. His advice has been around for a long time; still it's good and helpful advice if you've never heard it before. On the other hand Pollan's suggestion that each nutrient has a context~that is, nutrients should be ingested as food, not as supplements, because the relationships among the nutrients in each food are symbiotic~was something I had not thought of before and makes sense to me.

Pollan could have cut the word count in half and still told us everything. From almost the beginning I was impatient with the wordiness. But worse than that was Pollan's scanty use of hard evidence to back up his claims. The book is mostly one assertion after another. I thought maybe the print edition was full of footnotes, so wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, I went to Amazon to see what I could see, and what I didn't see was a single footnote with sources to shore up his assertions. Granted I could not see the entire book, but if there weren't citations in the first chapter, there likely aren't citations in subsequent ones either. His bibliography is lengthy, but he does not specifically point us to the studies, etc. that undergird his conclusions. Since Pollan is a journalist, not a scientist, this constitutes a significant defect. Why is he qualified to write on this topic? If he's done the research, he needs to tell us.

In addition, after Pollan goes to great lengths to dispell what he calls "nutritionism," which is the isolating of single nutrients in foods, identifying their benefit or harm, and then proscribing how to eat based on that information, he turns around and does that very thing! He waxes for page after page about the benefits of omega-3, for example, telling us why it's good for us and where to find it. He admits he is doing this, but that doesn't make it okay. He also decries (with good reason) the fad diets of past decades, but I continued to wonder why his food prescriptions wouldn't fit in that category.

I have many smaller complaints about the book, but I will keep those to myself except this one: On a few occasions Pollan disses the Puritans with the same old kill-joy stereotypes used by those who know little about them. If you want to understand why these stereotypes are wrong, read Leland Ryken's Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were.

As I listened I thought maybe I was missing the point, or my logic was as fuzzy as Pollan's, or my complaints were unfounded, so I read some of the one- and two-star reviews on Amazon and discovered that I am not alone in my assessment of this book. I realize that that's not conclusive, but I'm glad to know that I'm not alone, at least.

The most enjoyable part of the book was near the end where Pollan writes about the joys of gardening and the salutary effects of families eating dinner together. And he quotes Wendell Berry. :-)

About the audio version: Scott Brick, the narrator, was simply awful. His tone was sarcastic and condescending and not at all suitable to the material. I'm sorry to say that, but there it is.

Sooooo . . . not a stellar literary experience. I am enjoying Jane, however, and barring unforeseen catastrophes, I really should finish it this week.

Feel free to post a review of something you've read (or listened to!) recently. You don't have to be taking part in the challenge to post about a book. :-)


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