In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (review: 2.5/5)

in defense of food
By now you’ve probably heard Michael Pollan‘s seven words of advice from In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the book he spends 150 pages talking about nutritionism, reductionist food science, and the negative health effects of the Western diet. In the last 50 pages he finally gets around to expanding just a little bit on those opening words.

If I may do my broken record routine, there are some books that are/would be much better as a long article. This is one—Pollan wrote it a year and a half ago in his New York Times Magazine article Unhappy Meals. Or you can get the gist from Pollan’s entertaining talk at Google. In making an excellent 12-page article 20 times longer, he retreads a lot of the same ground.

One prime example is this bit of repetition, within the space of 2 pages, when he’s writing about farmer’s markets and locally grown produce: “What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of their taste and nutritional quality.” And one paragraph later: “When you eat from a farmer’s market, you automatically eat food that is in season, which is usually when it is most nutritious.” And in the very next paragraph: “Local produce is typically picked ripe and is fresher than supermarket produce, and for those reasons it should be tastier and more nutritious.”

It kills me.

Not to say he’s a bad writer. He isn’t. (I did enjoy The Botany of Desire.) This one comes up a bit thin and repetitive. Maybe he wrote it to turn a buck. Maybe just because he’s fascinated and loves to write about it. Maybe he did it to have good ideas spread even wider and with a longer lifespan (and these are good ideas). But it’s frustrating to read.

On the upside, I like his mention of parking lot science:

“…for a long time cholesterol was the only factor linked to heart disease that we had to the tools to measure. (This is sometimes called parking-lot science, after the legendary fellow who loses his keys in a parking lot and goes looking for them under the streetlight—not because that’s where he lost them but because that’s where it’s easiest to see.)”

And I really liked his suggestion that Wonder Bread “scarcely waits to be chewed before transforming itself into glucose”.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (review: 2.5/5)

  1. The phenomenon of the overblown magazine article is a common one in other areas, too. Two examples with which I’m familiar:1. Sports books. There are a few (e.g. Moneyball, A Season on the Brink, Levels of the Game) that truly deserve long-form treatment. But many run-of-the-mill books don’t actually have that much narrative or thematic drive in them. You put a serviceable writer (e.g. John Feinstein) onto a topic and let him go until he’s got 400 pages. This *is* a great recipe for producing a book per year (cf. John Feinstein), but it’s not a great recipe for consistently producing *good* books.2. Many of the most influential ideas in the social sciences have been promulgated in pathbreaking articles, e.g. “The Tragedy of the Commons” or “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” But many of these ideas *don’t* work nearly as well when expanded to book length. Or rather, the book-length treatments don’t tell us that much more than the shorter articles did.The big impetus, of course, is that a magazine or journal article usually has a limited shelf life and a limited ability to repay its author over the long run, whereas books immediately address both of those concerns.(By the way, “street” should be “streetlight,” I think.)

  2. Maybe there’s a Pareto thing at work here: 80% of the information-value comes from maybe 20% of the book (the parts that make a good article).But when it comes to financial returns on your ideas, 80% will come from the book and the attention (speaking, consulting, etc.) it generates. It’s a matter of taking that 20% and making it hefty enough for a hardback…(Thanks for catching the typo!)

  3. I was very close to purchase after seeing Pollan’s talk on YouTube and a recent NightLine appearance. Thanks for steering me in the opposite direction.

  4. Appreciate the review here, Mark. Glad you didn’t tackle The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is probably 200% more bloated than this one (which I thought was more readable … but I didn’t finish this one either).And I really want to like Michael Pollan too … love the ideas, but would also agree that you can read his articles or find him in radio discussions.Even more frustrating for me (as a science teacher) is trying to find selections for students to read to get across his basic points. Holy crap … I tried last year with the above-mentioned book, and I think I had 10 pages with 2-3 lines per page underlined for them to read, then skip on to the next selection.Yeesh.

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