Intimate Cartographies, by L.A. Alexander, is a book I would not recommend. After finishing The Omnivore’s Dilemna, I had a few plane trips and a few days of vacation ahead of me, so I picked up another book at an English-language book store in Peru. I didn’t see anything I really wanted to read. It was mostly a lot of popular fiction, e.g. Stephen King, and I’m pretty picky about what fiction I want to spend my time reading. Reality is interesting enough.

So I made the mistake of choosing Intimate Cartographies, mostly because I vaguely recalled listening to a radio interview with the author. I knew it had something to do with a cartographer who lost a child, but I wrongly remembered that it was nonfiction. The book store had most of the books shrinkwrapped, so I couldn’t flip through to confirm my memory. It was cheap, so I bought it. And I had nothing else to read, so I read it. And it was tedious.

To be fair, I think it was intentionally tedious. It was tedious because it gave the reader (me) a glimpse into the grieving process of someone who lost a child. And, as we might expect, that process takes a long time and involves a lot of replaying the same events over and over again. So if you want to get a hint of the experience of losing a child, this is probably a good book. But who wants to experience that? Certainly not me.

I’d like to read about it, but I’d like to do so from a distance. Such a distance would allow me to enjoy the interesting discussions of maps without dreading the impending return to the lost child story, which isn’t really much of a story. The child was lost; end of story. Or would that it were anyway. Instead, the book is three hundred pages repeating the same story over and over again in different words. Not enjoyable reading, unless perhaps you’re one of the unfortunate parents who has actually lost a child. Then you’d probably appreciate Intimate Cartographies. But I am not, and I did not.

 

I finally finished The Omnivore’s Dilemna while in Peru. I read the first half in about four months, and the last half in about four days. It’s a lengthy book, but I found it well worth it. It did, however, ultimately fall a bit short of my expectations. The book is an excellent collection of ideas around a specific philosophy of eating, but it is not, as the title suggests, a general-purpose thesis on eating well.

The book starts with, and claims to be an answer to the question What should we have for dinner? But by the end it becomes clear the entire book is rooted in the unstated assumption that industrialization was a grave mistake. So the book is more specifically an answer to the question What is the best pre-industrial meal available in our post-industrial world? The answer, unsurprisingly, turns out to be pretty much exactly what it would have been before industrialization.

It is this certainty in industrialization as the root cause of most modern dietary problems that makes the book so compelling to continue reading. It wasn’t until nearly the end that I realized that such obvious food issues as health, economic class, geography, and aesthetics would not be addressed in any more depth than their relation to industrialization. By then I had already invested too much under the assumption other topics would be covered to stop reading. And I wouldn’t have stopped reading anyway, as Michael Pollan is a captivating story-teller, even when the moral of his story is entirely disagreeable.

It is because the book was written so well that I was so disappointed that the topic turned out to be deceptively narrow in scope. I think this paradox is most clearly demonstrated in the section on vegetarianism, the only in the book that significantly strayed from the central theme of industrialization, presumably because it would be absurd to write a book around thoughtful eating and not cover vegetarianism in much depth. This was the most interesting section for me, not only because I am vegetarian. I have been vegetarian for over ten years and this section presented arguments both for and against vegetarianism that I had never considered.

Which made it all the more disappointing that it ended with a conclusion suggesting that vegetarianism only makes sense as a means of avoiding the industrial food supply. This was where it became clear to me that industrialization was not simply the context in which Pollan chose to consider food, but rather food was the context in which he chose to consider industrialization. One can imagine him pitching his publisher a book on industrialization, and the publisher responding with “why don’t you write about food instead?” The child of those two is The Omnivore’s Dilemna, which while enjoyable, left me wishing to read either of the hypothetical books.

To beat a dead horse (an act Pollan apparently deems palatable so long as it happens outside an industrial economy), I’d like to note where the anti-industrialization bias creeps outside the context of food. In the section on mushroom hunting, he makes a very convincing argument that mushrooms can’t be reliably described over email or even over the phone. The argument in favor face-to-face communication is so good that it’s difficult to see why it should be restricted to mushrooms. Surely I can also understand driving a car infinitely better by talking to someone familiar with it than by reading about it in a driver’s education manual. After all, if someone doesn’t really know how to drive a car, he should be as dead as someone who doesn’t really know how to identify a poisonous mushroom.

So industrialization has diminished food and communication, or so says this book published, distributed, and sold in the industrial economy. And it has also diminished government (the USDA is subservient to industry), medicine (modern science is so untrustworthy regarding diet that Pollan doesn’t even bother telling the reader how the health care establishment would answer the question of what we should eat), and, well, everything really. It’s not even that I find many of these anti-industrialization ideas particularly disagreeable. I personally distrust modern medicine, for example, apparently with good reason. So I would be very interested to read about an alternative world view. But none is offered here. The book details problems of an industrialized food supply, but no real solutions.

Pollan admits that we live in an industrialized world, so his ideal non-industrialized diet is at best only feasible for a small minority of omnivores. But he stops there. If you’re in that small minority, The Omnivore’s Dilemna gives you a pretty good idea of what you should have for dinner. If you’re not, you only get a pretty good idea of what would be good for dinner if you were. The book ends with a chapter titled The Perfect Meal, which (no surprise) is one most removed from industrializations, one hunted and gathered by the eater himself:

This is not the way I want to eat every day. 
 But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. 
 we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

If you’d enjoy a book to help you imagine this, as I did, The Omnivore’s Dilemna is well worth reading. But before doing so, know that if you’d rather, you know, eat a good dinner than imagine it (as I would), you may find the book falls a bit short of expectations.

 

I’m going to start reviewing books, mostly because doing so will require me to start reading books again. Before this week, I hadn’t read a book in at least a year. I read a lot, but not books. I spend much of my time reading articles online from a wide variety of sources. And I periodically listen to audio books. But there’s some small niche of media that only really works in a book. Articles can’t possibly develop ideas in the same depth, and audio books always leave less room for imagination with the reader’s tone heavily influencing interpretation.

So I’m going to start reading books again, and the first book was Kino No Tabi. This book was lent to me by my librarian friend Libby, who read it before me. It was a good transition from my previous all-article reading diet to a new book-inclusive meal plan because it’s both relatively short and broken up into small chapters that could easily be read as independent stories.

Kino No Tabi was originally Japanese, but I read the English translation. I took Japanese back in university, so I can tell you that the title means "Kino of Tabi." Kino is the name of the main character, and I’m not sure what "Tabi" means. It might be some conjugation of the word "eat." I’m not sure.

Anyway, the story is basically that Kino rides a motorcycle from city to city and has different adventures in each city. Also, the motorcycle talks. That’s the kind of thing that would be incredibly distracting in a movie or audio book, but doesn’t seem very strange in the book. Without going into too much detail the adventures in each city are the kind of simple stories that reflect some larger idea about life in general.

Basically, Kino No Tabi is The Little Prince, only not as long, nor as good. I was interested enough to read to the end, but I don’t expect to read the next in the series. Oh yeah, there’s a series, called The Beautiful World. I don’t know if the second book has been translated to English yet or not.

Since I last read a book over a year ago, I learned that I don’t need to finish everything I start reading. That’s common sense, of course, but I never really learned it until I had too many articles in my aggregator and too many other things I wanted to do. I finally started reading things until I was no longer interested and then closing them, without the feeling I once had that I was missing out on something important by not finishing what I’d started.

So now I’m ready to apply that lesson to books. And while I won’t given an especially positive review of Kino No Tabi, it should say something that I finished it. It was good enough to finish but not good enough to continue the series. Let’s call that five out of ten stars, as a reference point for my future book reviews. Next up: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I won in the first annual Weaver family Christmas-in-November book exchange bingo tournament. Everyone won a book — more peer pressure to read books.