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Happy World Book Day!

Happy World Book Day!

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by | April 23, 2014 · 3:27 pm

Lost in the Supermarket

April 9, 2013, 9:00 pm 
By MARK BITTMAN

“Last year, it seemed, every book about food that crossed my desk — other than those about cooking, of course — seemed to have one of two titles: “How I Moved to Brooklyn and Became a Roof-Gardening Butcher” or “The Gluten-Free Diet Saved My Life, and It Can Save Yours.”

This year is different; the books are variations on the title “How Big Food Is Trying to Kill You.” We have “Salt Sugar Fat,” my Times colleague Michael Moss’s epic description of the manipulation of processed food to make it even more palatable and addictive tomorrow than it was yesterday, and how the industry is well aware of how destructive of public health this manipulation truly is. We have the excellent “Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America” by Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, which details the takeover of our food system by that same crew of corporate cynics.

And we have the cleverly titled “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” by Melanie Warner, a freelance (and former Times) reporter, which is so much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is. This is in part thanks to Warner’s measured, almost dry but deceptively alluring reportorial style, but it’s also because the extent to which food is  manipulated – and therefore, consumers as well — is downright absurd . There are more Holy Cow! moments here than even someone who thinks he or she knows what’s going on in food production could predict.

Warner, who notes that 70 percent of the food we eat is highly processed, says that “The big question is this: ‘What happens when you manipulate food, take it apart and put it back together again, all the while adding new or altered ingredients?’”

Cereal aisle, U.S.A.

Mike Blake/ReutersCereal aisle, U.S.A.

For instance: Warner writes of your food being “constructed from powders,” and uses as an example the Subway Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sandwich. (The name alone feels like it took five geniuses two weeks of brainstorming to devise.) “Of the 105 ingredients,” (you read that right) “55 are dry, dusty substances” whose names sound familiar only to those who read labels, names like disodium guanylate, calcium disodium EDTA, and other things you probably don’t have lying around your kitchen.

Warner reserves much of her astonishment for the amoral food technologists she meets, many of whom decline to eat their own products, which include the much-discussed processed cheese, white bread, soybean oil (extremely complicated, but let’s just say that once you read about it you’ll stop buying it) and breakfast cereal.

On a trip to her local supermarket, she counted 215 different types of the latter, along with 120 types of soda, 94 sliced breads and 128 crackers. She does not pass up the opportunity to comment on this, noting that when it comes to cereal, at least, “we live in the land of boundless opportunity,” but that “our landscape of choices in the supermarket is not an undisturbed democracy. There’s no point in deliberating too long over what kind of oranges or tomatoes to buy. The decision has all been made for us: navel or Valencia; vine-ripened, cherry, or Roma.”

The reason, Warner explains, that it’s difficult to find a box of cereal that doesn’t contain a slew of added vitamins and minerals is “because the processes — extrusion, toasting at high temperatures, the ‘gun puffing’ process” (you’ll remember that Quaker Puffed Wheat and Rice are “shot from guns,” a process whose development Warner discusses in loving detail) — “destroys many nutrients, as well as fiber. Cereal manufacturers claim that their products are ‘wholesome, nutritious ways to start the day’ but almost all the nutrients in most breakfast cereals come from added vitamins.” Needless to say, she notes, “Their health benefits are vastly overstated.”

History plays a large part in “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” not only that of the development of processed food — again, hilarious as long as you have a sense of irony — but also that of the struggle to contain it. There are heroes here, most notably the late 19th- and early 20th-century crusader Harvey Wiley, who witnessed and fought against processed food. (Oreos were introduced in 1912, Kraft processed cheese in 1915.)

Wiley opposed – mostly unsuccessfully — saccharin (the first product marketed by Monsanto), cigarettes, soda and especially additives. His “Poison Squads” raised awareness — so much that when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” public anger was pronounced enough so that President Theodore Roosevelt was compelled to sign into law the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, also known as the Wiley Act.

This was the foundation of the current Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), so named in 1930. Warner, like many of us writing about these topics, is alternately angry and sympathetic with its current incarnation: “On the one hand their hands are tied, but there is a lot they could be doing within their authority to keep things that are known to be unsafe, like brominated vegetable oil and BHA, out of food. It’s not very heartening.”

We all know this, on some level — white bread and many breakfast cereals, at least, have been deemed worthless or worse for as long as most of us have been alive — yet most of us choose to ignore it, or we’re tired of our own outrage. When I pointed this out in a phone interview with Warner, she said that until recently “We didn’t know the true impact of these changes in food on our society and our health. Our diets have changed more in the last century than in the previous 10,000 years, when agriculture was introduced.”

Much of this was analyzed in books like “Fast Food Nation,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the groundbreaking (and, Warner and I agreed, under-credited) “Diet for a New America,” by John Robbins. “But,” as Warner notes, “there weren’t many books that delved into the strange and complex story of processed food and food science.”

This year, the 100th anniversary of Mallomars, that’s being remedied.”

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by | April 15, 2013 · 2:55 pm

“A Room Without Books…”

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by | January 27, 2013 · 7:50 pm

“Books are the quietest…”

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by | January 8, 2013 · 2:43 pm

Writers and Their Books: Inside Famous Authors’ Personal Libraries

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“Lessons in reading from an 18th-century lord, or why the allure of an unread book is like the dawn of romance.

As a hopeless bibliophile, an obsessivelover of bookcases, and a chronic pursuer of voyeuristic peeks inside the minds of creators, I’m utterly spellbound by Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books — a vicarious journey into the personal libraries of thirteen favorite authors, who share their collections of childhood favorites, dusty textbooks, prized first editions, and beloved hardcovers, along with some thoughts on books, reading, and the life of the mind. Alongside the formidable collections — featuring Alison BechdelStephen CarterJunot DíazRebecca Goldstein and Steven PinkerLev Grossman and Sophie GeeJonathan LethemClaire Messud and James WoodPhilip PullmanGary Shteyngart, and Edmund Whit — are short interviews with the authors about the books most important to them (including their top 10), their style of organization, and their thoughts on what the future of books might hold. (Cue in writers on the future of books.) The interviews are prefaced by Leah Price’s fascinating brief history of bookshelves, from the rise of the vertical book on a horizontal shelf to how social bookmarking services are changing our relationship with tagging and indexing information.

A self without a shelf remains cryptic; a home without books naked.” ~ Leah Price

With a nod to both the Medieval florilegium and the productive messiness of marginalia, Price echoes Craig Mod’s vision for the future of post-artifact books:

Far from making reader response invisible, then, the digital age may be taking us back to the Renaissance tradition of readers commenting in the margins of their friends’ or employers’ books and contributing homemade indexes to the flyleaves. Only after the rise of the nineteenth- century public library did such acts come to be seen as defacing, rather than enriching, the book.”

Steven Pinker + Rebecca Goldstein

A common denominator in many of my nonfiction choices is their combination of clarity, rigor, accessibility, depth, and wit. The novels by Twain and Melville are gold mines for anyone interested in language and in human nature.” ~Steven Pinker

Kant tells us that a person can never be used as a means to an end, but must be viewed as an end in itself. This is one of the formulations of his famous categorical imperative. Well, that pretty much summarizes my attitude toward books. I would never use a book as a coaster or to prop up something else, any more than I’d use a person toward that end.” ~ Rebecca Goldstein

Jonathan Lethem

People sometimes act as though owning books you haven’t read constitutes a charade or pretense, but for me, there’s a lovely mystery and pregnancy about a book that hasn’t given itself over to you yet — sometimes I’m the most inspired by imagining what the contents of an unread book might be.”

(Isn’t that strikingly like the beginning of a romance?)

Stephen Carter notes the importance of being pushed out of our intellectual and literary filter bubbles:

My life was changed. The books she gave me opened my mind to the simple realization that there is in the world such a thing as truly great literature; and that I would never discover it by mere hit-or-miss, or by reading only what interested me.”

Claire Messud + James Wood

Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me. At one time, collecting books that were my own, feeling I had my own intellectual and literary trajectory visible before me, seemed necessary and meaningful. But now, in midlife, I feel that my tendency to acquire books is rather like someone smoking two packs a day: it’s a terrible vice that I wish I could shuck. I love my books, and with all their dog-ears and under- linings they are irreplaceable; but I sometimes wish they’d just vanish. To be weighed down by things — books, furniture — seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on.” ~ Claire Messud

Gary Shteyngart

Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet.” ~ Gary Shteyngart

Philip Pullman

How does the reading feed into the writing, and vice versa? Continually, continuously, promiscuously, in a million ways.” ~ Philip Pullman

And in the vein of last week’s meditation on how to read a book, Price relays the following advice, bequeathed by the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1747:

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind.”

(The same Lord Chesterfield two years later pronounced, “Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.”)

Equal parts voyeuristically indulgent and unapologetically stimulating,Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books is the second installment in Yale University Press’s ongoing series, following 2009′s Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press”

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Gluyas Williams’s cartoon “Portrait of a Small Boy Reading”

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by | December 14, 2012 · 2:27 pm

Anaïs Nin on Embracing the Unfamiliar

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““It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

We’ve already seen that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, and that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. John Keats wrote of this art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” and famously termed it“negative capability.” But count on Anaïs Ninto articulate familiar truths in the most exquisitely poetic way possible, peeling away at the most profound and aspirational aspects of what it means to be human.

In a diary entry from the winter of 1949-1950, found in Diary of Anaïs Nin Volume 5 1947-1955: Vol. 5 (1947-1955)(public library), which gave us Nin’s whimsical antidote to city life and her poignant meditation on character, parenting, and personal responsibility, she observes:

Educators do all in their power to prepare you to enjoy reading after college. It is right that you should read according to your temperament, occupations, hobbies, and vocations. But it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar. In science, we respect the research worker. In literature, we should not always read the books blessed by the majority. This trend is reflected in such absurd announcements as “the death of the novel,” “the last of the romantics,” “the last of the Bohemians,” when we know that these are continuous trends which evolve and merely change form. The suppression of inner patterns in favor of patterns created by society is dangerous to us. Artistic revolt, innovation, experiment should not be met with hostility. They may disturb an established order or an artificial conventionality, but they may rescue us from death in life, from robot life, from boredom, from loss of the self, from enslavement.

When we totally accept a pattern not made by us, not truly our own, we wither and die. People’s conventional structure is often a façade. Under the most rigid conventionality there is often an individual, a human being with original thoughts or inventive fantasy, which he does not dare expose for fear of ridicule, and this is what the writer and artist are willing to do for us. They are guides and map makers to greater sincerity. They are useful, in fact indispensable, to the community. They keep before our eyes the variations which make human beings so interesting. The men who built America were the genuine physical adventurers in a physical world. This world once built, we need adventurers in the realm of art and science. If we suppress the adventure of the spirit, we will have the anarchist and the rebel, who will burst out from too narrow confines in the form of violence and crime.

Also from Nin’s diaries: why emotional excess is essential to creativityParis vs. New Yorkwhat makes a great city, and hand-lettered wisdom on life.”

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by | December 13, 2012 · 6:37 pm