Sunday, June 7, 2009

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan. The Omnivore's Dilemma

By now, this book is already three or four years old, and many readers of this blog have probably read it and formed opinions of it. If you haven't, I urge you to read this book, It's about industrial agriculture, organic and sustainable farming, as well as about hunting and foraging. It made me rethink my lifestyle and gave me sound background and reasoning for the choices I now make. 

So, this isn't going to be your garden variety review. Instead of assessing the book's strengths and providing an overview (as I've said, I think most people already have a sense of the book's contents), I'd like to share my experiences with this book as a teacher of composition and literature.

I first read The Omnivore's Dilemma while I was teaching a writing course, ENG102, Writing II: "Into the Woods." The school had initiated a connected-learning project to help students improve their reading, writing and critical thinking skills by restructuring ENG102 to be interdisciplinary and topic-based. My topics have consistently revolved around nature and environmental concerns. I've enjoyed the opportunity to teach a topic that I care about, and I think the students have been enriched as well. Overall, I think the connected-learning approach works well in its aim to get students to a higher level of critical thinking and writing than with traditional introduction to literature curricula. 

Last semester, I assigned this book and it was by far the overall favorite among the students. At first, I was a little daunted by the length, the complexity and the "radical" nature of the book. I mean, here was a book telling students that most of their favorite, processed foods were full of things that would likely make them fat, enrich large corporations and impoverish small family farms. Here was a book that blew the lid on that beloved staple of child/teen life -- the chicken nugget. Here was a book that was going to make them afraid to go into the dining hall.

But, if I may make a pun, they ate it up. They were disgusted to think about the thirty-three ingredients in the McNugget. They felt indignant about the adulteration of homey and wholesome corn in the manufacture of all kinds of food additives. And I think they were most perplexed as to why agriculture could be allowed to become wasteful (when it had once been an efficient way to reuse waste and resources) and even toxic (I'm thinking here about the "manure lagoons" that are the result of CAFOs). 

I think it was helpful that I "served" this book with some accompaniments: a viewing of SuperSize Me and an assignment and discussion about the internet game/edumercial, McVideoGame. In addition, all the research and presentation topics were about food and agriculture issues, which I chose purposefully to coincide with the book, allowing students to even use it as a resource. 

The combination of book, film, game, and projects allowed students to see connections, which is, I think, the mark of a well-informed adult citizen. However, I was dismayed that some students thought I was preaching a leftist viewpoint, an anti-meat philosophy. I guess that's always the danger when you present something that is controversial and complex. The book is NOT anti-meat (they need to see Peter Singer's Animal Liberation for that), but it seems that many folks reduce the book down this way. Perhaps it's easier to understand if one reduces it to a simpler message, especially if they're eighteen, but the book's power, I feel, is really in its call to embrace real, natural food prepared in harmony with the laws of nature. One student asked me why we didn't read something that was "pro-meat." What do you mean, kid? The Atkins' Diet? That fad that was discredited about thirty years ago that was resurrected to once again confuse people about their diets?  This is one of the problems of our culture and our youth -- a lack of discernment and judgement about information. Just because someone wrote a book about it doesn't make it accurate. Even Pollan's book can be critiqued. Even this blog can be critiqued.

I think what I admired most about this book was it's attention to the likely counterargument. I always tell my students that if you want to be most persuasive, predict the opposition's every move and refute each one. I feel that Pollan does this consistently throughout the book, which is why it comes across so vehement and probably why it has been so influential. Of course, this can also confuse students who might not have enough sophistication to discern what is Pollan's own view and what is just a view he is describing/analyzing, but, hopefully, they got something out of it. I hope they will return to the book in their minds and think more critically about it with each rumination. 

About a month ago, Pollan spoke at the West Roxbury branch of the BPL, and Seth and I went. So many folks showed up that they had to move the event next door to a school. I really enjoyed it, bought the new book, In Defense of Food, and got my two books signed. I like how this experience both expands and shrinks my world. On the one hand, it's great to see so many people all fired up about food consciousness, and on the other, I think it's crazy that I got to meet my new favorite food author for free, at a pokey, little library that is literally walking distance from my house. 

I am the drop and the ocean . . . . 

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