#michael pollan

How I Came to Embrace Reading and Became a Smarter Person

on Nov 13, 2011

Note: I refer mostly to the reading of non-fiction books in this post

“I love to read!” These are some words that every school teacher and parent would be enthralled to hear from their kids. And our teachers and parents work so hard to get us to read, telling us that it is essential to our success. Yet, through multiple metrics, like the repeated statistics that kids aren’t meeting reading standards or that adults do very little reading in general, there’s a clear disconnect between the the desire and the reality. I’m not sure what the perfect solution is to get people more interested in reading, but as someone who has gone from non-reader to a voracious reader, I share some experiences that provide light on the matter.

For most of my life, I didn’t like reading because iit was something I did only in school or had forced upon me by authority figures. It felt like something that was work and it was neither fun nor something that I chose to do. In most cases, I found the literary works uninteresting. But for school, I was required to read it and then participate in class discussions (and by discussions, I mean the desperate teacher prodding us students to guess the bazillion hidden intents made by the author). I found the whole exercise pointless and didn’t see how it connected to real life matters. I’m sure many of my classmates shared this sentiment. And we marched on through our school lives, reading only when we had to, associating it as some necessary and boring activity that required a lot of effort yet yielded little legitimate value.

It wasn’t until my third year of college – near the end of my formal education – that I saw a tiny light indicating otherwise. At the time, I was looking into ways to improve my eating habits and my exploration fueled my desire to learn about the machinery behind our food system. I picked up The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Despite the elegance of Pollan’s words, it took me about four months to finish the book. This wasn’t a surprise considering that this was probably the first non-fiction book I had ever read on my own accord. I wasn’t used to reading such a long work so it took an exorbitant amount of time and effort to get through it. However, the experience was very eye-opening – it revealed that reading such a work is enjoyable and a great way to learn.

Flash forward to now – four years later. I’ve probably polished off about seventy-five non-fiction books since. And my rate of reading has increased exponentially. That is, I read a handful of books when still in school, and even more after finishing school. And then it exploded – I feasted on books, reading one after another, or as more often the case, two or three in parallel. Despite that I began working full-time in 2011, I began to read even more, stuffing sessions into my commute and weekends. I’d become addicted.

So what happened? How did this transformation occur? The first and most significant factor was that reading allowed me to learn about the things I found interesting. And it became self-perpetuating – as I read more about things that interested me, I became interested in other things that the books discussed, and I ended up reading books on those topics. It was also self-fulfilling: because reading allowed me to delve into subjects I was passionate about (or became passionate about – the order is sometimes a blur), I became passionate about reading itself.

The second factor is that it became easier to read as I read more. The ability to read is much akin to training like an athlete or artist – it requires a lot of consistent practice and concentration – especially in the beginning when we’re prone to fumble around. The ease and grace comes after a lot of initial work. I sense that most people that don’t like to read, if not all, never get over this hurdle. They never get to a level where it’s easy to get into a reading groove and breeze through long or complex works with ease.

The third factor is that our school teachers and parents are correct – reading goes a long way to make us more intelligent, wise, and conscientious individuals – essential qualities to do well in our complex world. This is especially the case for non-fiction works. In my own experiences, I’ve found that I better understand the world and how it operates on a deep level because of all the explorations, research, and insights I’ve become exposed to from all the various perspectives of the authors. Likewise, this has bolstered my creative ability by providing more parts for my creative toolbox. Reading allows my experience in education to continue despite that I’m out of school. My formal studies involved the natural sciences and computer science, and I also had some informal study of the social sciences. But through reading, I’ve learned a great deal about psychology, economics, world problems, self improvement, social etiquette, business, history, media, and marketing. Here’s a handful of books that illustrate the breadth of knowledge out there:

Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen –  an American student reveals the story of the Middle East youth through a blend of his firsthand experiences from exploring the Middle East and the history that has brought its cultures to the present state

The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo – the creator of the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment dives into details of his study and the analogous Abu Gharib tortures to show how human morality can be altered almost completely given the right environment

Food Politics by Marion Nestle – this nutrition, food studies, and public health professor exposes the relationship between the food industry and our political system and how it produces the our food system – one that is geared for the industry at the expense of our health

Linchpin by Seth Godin – this marketing genius shows how the way we do work has shifted away from an industrial model to one that allows us to become indispensable individuals that do meaningful work

Each of these works explores something that affects us profoundly – it’s difficult to argue that any of them don’t explore areas that are relevant to our daily lives. This is why I so strongly believe that reading books is so important for us as individuals and as a society. Likewise, this is why I find reading to be so interesting. I love to read. Why not say it too?

Getting Down to Eating Well, Some Good Reads

on Mar 30, 2010

In an earlier post, I covered some all around good reads on eating well and food culture. In this post, we’ll focus more on actually practically eating better. Again, we have a book by Michael Pollan. Food Rules, an incredibly short read that you can finish in two hours, presents 64 simple rules to eating better. Most of them have a few paragraphs explaining the rule at hand. Anyone not exposed to Pollan’s mantra: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much” will be blown away by his simplistic, yet wholesome, approach to eating well. And as Pollan states, having just a handful of these anecdotes in your head is plenty to get you eating better. I’ve carefully looked through all the 64 rules and can’t disagree with a single one.

Another interesting, and very unique, book is Food Matters by NYT food writer Mark Bittman. In the first half of this book, Bittman shares his own story on how he began to eat better and the transformation it brought to his health. The story is very telling yet personal. The second half of his book is very special, because Bittman presents a detailed plan on achieving the goal of eating better. Literally. He includes four weeks of daily meal suggestions. Even more incredible: the following 150+ pages are filled with recipes of the very meals he suggests in the meal plans. You’d be hard pressed to find a better all-in-one guide that combines information about the food culture, a real story on the tremendous impact of eating better, and the tools to help you make the same transformation. If you like Bittman’s recipes, he’s got a ton more in his How to Cook Everything books.

Enjoy the reads, guys. They really get down and dirty with eating better. And if you have your own suggestions, surely let me know.

All-Around Good Reads on Eating Well and Food Culture

on Feb 21, 2010

Eating well is a confusing mess and much of that is due to bad information purported by self interested parties (more on that in a future post). Fortunately there are a bunch of legitimate resources out there to help you eat better. The NYT Magazine article, Unhappy Meals, blew me away and really got me rethinking the whole notion of eating better. This piece was written by Michael Pollan who has written many other great pieces regarding food culture. One relevant example is In Defense of Food which is an expansion of his NYT Magazine piece.

Another fantastic NYT Magazine piece, written nearly a decade ago, is What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? by Gary Taubes. This piece is striking because it completely upends the notion that fats are the “nutritionary evils” that most people consider them to be. If anything, this article is worth a read because it spurs the kind of thought required to dispel much of the bad advice on eating well.

The following two books are interesting because of their seemingly antagonistic nature. Several reviews for Nina Plank’s Real Food slammed the book for bad advice and the reviewers suggested reading The China Study, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, instead. Seeing this, I decided to read both and did in fact find a common ground in between them.

In Real Food, Planck argues that foods containing saturated fats and cholesterol are improperly labeled as bad guys and consuming these foods is better than vegan or vegetarian diets. She also argues against “food”, such as soy this and soy that, that imitates other foods.

In The China Study, Campbell argues that the “western diet”, which often put animal products at the center of the plate causes “diseases of affluence” (heart disease and cancer among the biggest of these). Assertions are based on his decades of research that compare diets and disease occurrence between western cultures and traditional cultures (in this case, rural areas in China).

It is very interesting that each of these books addresses the same issue but from opposite ends. Certainly, they both call for eating food that is less processed. Also, they push for food that is closer to what humans ate for hundreds of generations before its transformation in western societies.

There are plenty of other great reads on eating well and our food culture (and I’ll cover some of those in future posts). But I’ve found these five pieces particularly astounding in providing a big-picture view for eating well – between bringing light to the mess of information on how to eat, to the actual process of eating better.

The Way We Live Will Sabotage Health Care

on Feb 11, 2010

Whatever new healthcare changes we have are ultimately doomed. It’s not that the reform ideas are bad ones; they’re actually outstanding and much needed changes. It’s just that the American way of life is very incompatible with this system. We Americans are health destroying machines and there’s no way our healthcare system can pick up the slack. We put very little means into taking care of ourselves and that has very serious, painful, and expensive consequences. Imagine if every unhealthy person in the country, which is to say most of the population, was covered by insurance. There’d be no way to pay for all of their medical expenses.

Unless we start eating better and doing more physical activity, among other things, we’re heading for a total disaster. We could very well bankrupt the country in trying to pay off health bills or fees for insurance. So take care of yourself. In doing so, you build your own “insurance” – one of your own wellbeing. I know it’s not easy as it does have its own costs, including time. But it’s one we’re better off paying now than the huge costs we’d incur in the future instead. We also need to approach our food system as we’re doing our health system, as food writer Michael Pollan has stated. With this, we will make eating healthier easily attainable goal.