What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn’t even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it’s that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it’s that our “decayed world,” as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it’s just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you’ll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac.
In the 366 daily pages of A Reader’s Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they’ve invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn’t enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it’s with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year’s first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it’s not included below: Bridget Jones’s Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909)
What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year.
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors.
“New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940)
With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir.
Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)
Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board.
“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989)
Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty.
The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones’s failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.
When you flush the toilet, do you know where your shit goes? Sure, in most cities, it flows into the main sewer system until it reaches a waste-water treatment plant somewhere on the outskirts of town. But then what happens to it? Do you have any idea? If your first response is, “Ask somebody who cares,” then you need to read David Waltner-Toews’s The Origin of Feces. Now.
Despite its goofball title and jokey tone, The Origin of Feces is a deeply serious work of environmental science that strives to do for how we think about shit what Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have done for how we think about what we eat. In just more than 200 breezy, gag-filled pages, Waltner-Toews argues that by crowding people into cities and animals onto factory farms we have turned shit from a vital part of a healthy ecosystem into a toxic waste that must be managed. “We are taking a brilliantly complex diversity of animal, plant, and bacterial species,” he writes, “and transforming them into a disordered mess of bacteria and nutrients. We are transforming a wonderful complex planet into piles of shit.”
Unlike journalists such as Schlosser, Pollan, and Malcolm Gladwell who have led the charge in recent years to popularize abstruse scientific findings for lay readers, Waltner-Toews is himself a veterinarian and epidemiologist who teaches population medicine at the University of Guelph, near Toronto. Unfortunately for American readers, Waltner-Toews is also a Canadian whose new book is published by an independent Canadian publisher, ECW Press, which means The Origin of Feces will have nowhere near the public profile of a new Gladwell or Pollan tome.
This is a crying shame. I cannot think of a more necessary work of popular science since Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which together pulled back the curtain from the American agricultural-industrial food complex and helped kick the slow-food movement into gear. In some ways, though, those books had an easier time of it. While industrial feedlots and food processing plants may be largely invisible to most consumers, we eat the results of this industrial approach to food, which in a lot of cases tastes pretty awful. You don’t have to be an organic farming purist to be willing to pay a little extra to buy whole foods that taste better and, by extension, do slightly less damage to the planet.
No matter how pure your eating habits, however, your shit still stinks, and unless you are living in a yurt in the wilderness, it still gets flushed into the same sewage-treatment system that everybody else uses. Like so many of the systems that undergird a modern industrial society, waste management is opaque to everyone outside a tiny coterie of specialists — until, of course, there is an outbreak of food-borne illness or a fish-killing algae bloom caused by agricultural runoff, in which case we run around looking for villains, who are almost by definition not ourselves.
Waltner-Toews aims to tear down the mental wall we have built between ourselves and our crap and show us that what we excrete is not simply toxic sludge, but an essential, nutrient-rich link in the life cycle of our planet. To do this, he says, we must first find a good way to talk about shit. Early on, Waltner-Toews takes his reader on a whirlwind tour through the etymology of dozens of terms we use to describe what comes out of our asses, from the profane (“shit” and “crap”) to the euphemistic (“poop” and “BM”) to the technical (“biosolids” and “fecula”). This chapter is hilarious and often enlightening. Who knew that “excrement” comes from the Latin word excernere, “to sift,” or that the Middle English word “crap” found a place in the modern lexicon in part by its association with Thomas Crapper, who popularized the use of the flush toilet?
But here as elsewhere in the book, Waltner-Toews’s purpose is deadly serious. The way we talk about shit, he points out, lays bare the way we think about this basic byproduct of human life — which is that, most of the time, we’d rather not think about it at all. Shit embarrasses us. It’s dirty and smelly, and in colloquial language it is the go-to term for everything from outrageous lies (“bullshit”) to illegal drugs (“really good shit”) and worthlessness (“a piece of shit”). But when we are forced to think about its real-world consequences, we quickly retreat to vague technical terms like “biosolids” that have the advantage of not having any real meaning to most people.
This matters, Waltner-Toews argues:
We can use precise technical terms when we want the engineers to devise a solution to a specific organic agricultural or urban waste problem…In so doing, however, we alienate the public, who are suspicious of words like biosolids. This public will need to pay for the filtration and treatment plants. They suspect that the solution to chicken shit in the water might not be a better filtration plant, but they don’t have the language to imagine and discuss what the alternatives might be.
Waltner-Toews spends the rest of the book giving his reader the language, and the knowledge, to begin imagining alternatives to our present industrially engineered solutions to our quickly multiplying waste problems. His central point is that in a healthy, bio-diverse ecosystem, shit is neither waste nor a problem. For millions of years, animals have been eating plants and other animals and shitting out whatever their bodies couldn’t use, in the process distributing seeds that have allowed stationary plants to spread and providing nutrients to fertilize the soil and feed billions of insects and smaller organisms.
But by concentrating people and the animals we eat into increasingly industrialized spaces, we have severed the vital link between shit and the natural biological processes that have been cleaning it up and re-using it for as long as there has been life on our planet. One result is pollution, which, as Waltner-Toews suggests, is just a word we use to describe what happens when a substance — carbon dioxide, say, or pig shit– gets concentrated in one place faster than the natural systems can recycle it. Another outcome is a rise in food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli, most of which are caused by animal or human shit finding its way into our food. The separation of people and animals from the surrounding biosphere also contributes to broader systemic imbalances that lead to problems like extinction of species that depend on healthy ecosystems, famines resulting from nutrient-starved soils, and widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers designed in part to make up for the lack of natural shit-based fertilizer.
The problem of shit, Waltner-Toews says, is a classic “wicked problem,” meaning a problem that can’t be solved by straightforward science and engineering without creating a whole set of new problems. We can, for instance, pump pig shit into vast manure lagoons and pump the animals themselves full of antibiotics that help them avoid diseases derived from eating shit, but ultimately the toxic brew in those manure lagoons has to go somewhere and antibiotics have a nasty habit of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
The Origin of Feces is better at describing the wickedness of this problem than at articulating solutions, which get high-falutin’ and improbable in a hurry. Drawing on the work of scientists who see the complex interactions in natural ecosystems as “panarchy,” and quoting the philosopher Arthur Koestler, who saw each living thing as a whole unto itself and also a part of something larger, which together he called a “holon,” Waltner-Toews uses the term “holonocracy,” which he says “embodies a way of interpreting nested social and ecological changes and implies a new way to think about management and governance based on those observations.”
Yeah, I know. I didn’t really follow that, either. In later pages, Waltner-Toews thankfully returns to plain English and argues that the problem of shit is merely a particularly unpleasant manifestation of the more generally unsustainable nature of our industrial age, which has created “too much shit in the world, in all the wrong places.” He details some nifty small-scale solutions involving the repurposing energy-rich shit into fuel or animal feed. But at the macro-level, he seems to be saying that a comprehensive, systemic problem of this kind demands an equally comprehensive, systemic solution, which, if I am reading him right, means seriously rethinking industrialized agriculture and urbanized population. Which — call me crazy — I don’t see happening anytime soon.
But of course the very difficulty Waltner-Toews has explaining his solutions for a non-specialist audience underscores the fundamental wickedness of the problem. The Origins of Feces is a genial book, and often a kick to read, but I put it down thinking two things: 1. I will never look at shit the same way again; and 2. We are in deep shit. That Waltner-Toews, clearly one of the smartest guys in the room when it comes to this issue, cannot explain a solution in terms I can understand makes me think we are in even deeper shit than he claims.
The early years of this century have inspired an uncommon amount of speculation about America’s advancing age. The Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing, and the ensuing changing-of-the-guard buzz it inspired, was only the latest, and most pointed, example of the creeping feeling that America, while hardly a senior citizen, might be past its prime.The change, if it happened, was sudden. I took an international relations class in 2002, my junior year of college, and all of books we read focused on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new age of American unipolar dominance. Such thinking seems wistful, if not naive today, squeezed and suddenly vulnerable as we are to the unpredictability of terrorism, the rise of petrostates, and the momentum of China. The changing complexion of the world has inspired a raft of books on American descent, some of which look outward in their analysis, like Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, and others, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that look inward at our unsustainable national habits.This shift in the national mood was brought home to me when, this summer, I reread Rabbit, Run, which I had first picked up in high school, and at the time appreciated largely for the basketball on the cover and the scenes between the sheets. The novel opens with Rabbit trapped at home, with a pregnant, alcoholic wife in a dingy apartment. The coat closet door bangs against the television set when he opens it partway to hang up his suit coat, a precise and simple illustration of the confined place the former high school basketball star has come to in his mid-twenties. Sent by his wife Janice to retrieve their young son Nelson, Rabbit instead steals into the family car and points his way out of town. Rabbit does not get far though. He’s disoriented soon after crossing from Pennsylvania into West Virginia, and by daybreak the next morning he is back in the bowl of Brewer, ensconced mere miles from the his wife and kid, first with his old high school basketball coach and then for a longer stay with a wounded amateur prostitute named Ruth.I read Rabbit, Run several months after finishing two novels from our time featuring troubled male protagonists. Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land and Hans van den Broek in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland are constructed similarly to Rabbit, in that they are distinctively strong and confident in one part of their lives, but fundamentally weak and uncertain in the emotional dimensions that matter most. Though he’s some years out of high school, Rabbit still maintains the cocksureness and presence of a talented athlete. Frank and Hans are confident and assured as well-off, successful professionals, yet like Rabbit, they are emotionally feeble and crippled in their marriages.The characters are similar in design, yet reading Rabbit, Run, I was struck by just how differently Updike depicts Rabbit’s dislocation, compared with the renderings Ford and O’Neill give their characters fifty years later. The last line of The Lay of the Land describes Frank’s descent into a Minneapolis airport, bound for the Mayo Clinic with his second wife tight by his side. “A bump, a roar,” Ford writes, “a heavy thrust forward into life again, and we resume our human scale upon the land.” The idea of returning to the ground, and to life, marks a break with the feeling of suspension that permeates the three books of the Bascombe trilogy. Battered by the tragedies that have accumulated in his life, Frank floats down the many miles of the Jersey turnpike, and drifts just out of reach of his emotions and the other people in his life. A similar sense of distance accents Netherland. Hans surveys New York from an upper floor of the Chelsea hotel and appears to have the same vantage on the events of his own life, dazed, almost, as if drugged, a surveyor hanging by the foot from a hot air balloon.Rewind fifty years, however, and Updike offers a different view of the situation. To hear Rabbit tell it, he is anything but adrift from the circumstances of his life. He is more besieged, and the language throughout Rabbit, Run is abrasive and aggressive. Rabbit is “irritated” by Ruth’s friends. The strap of his golf bag “gnaws at his shoulder.” The chair in his living room “attacks” his knees and his son’s strewn toys “derange” his head. He is beset at every turn, gripped as if trying to escape the clawing branches of a phantasmagoric forest. Though Frank and Hans are just as up against it as Rabbit, Updike’s language, describing such direct conflict, seems of a simpler time, when the antagonists in the world could still be so clearly named. A bag strap, a chair, some children’s toys.The stresses Rabbit faces are the stresses of youth, crucible pressures which bore in on him. It’s not pressure, though, that afflicts Hans and Frank. They face instead the dissolution of narrative, the escape of once familiar boundaries and reliable sources of meaning. Frank has confronted the loss of his son, the end of his marriage, and cancer, unknowable episodes from Rabbit’s vantage. Frank’s losses have not left him with the oppression of a place he knows too well, the way Brewer confronts Rabbit, but instead with the void of a place he knows not at all. That the world becomes less intelligible, not more, as we grow older, is the wisdom Frank has to offer Rabbit, an allowance to ease the struggle, and perhaps a message for our time.
David Gutowski runs the popular music and culture blog Largehearted Boy.As I get ready to move, I have been packing away the books I have read this year. A bit obsessive about my reading, I keep separate shelves for my blog’s 52 Books, 52 Weeks and Book Notes projects, along with a shelf for everything else I have squeezed into the year. Gathering my yearly input has given me a rare insight into how amazing this year’s books have been for me, especially Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.I keep a “to read” list on my laptop, right now it features over a hundred books, ordered by interest. The Omnivore’s Dilemma had been on the list for over a year, ever since my friends started recommending the book to me, always with the wide eyes of recently converted zealots. My wife jokes that my personal mantra is, “I’m skeptical,” but with so many people whose opinions I respect behind the book, I decided to give it a chance (and slotted it between the literary fiction and graphic novels that make up the majority of my yearly reading).The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the rare book which changed the way I live. Michael Pollan gave me new insight into the true cost of the food we eat. Last year I read Jay Weinstein’s The Ethical Gourmet and reconsidered my diet with regard to ecological concerns, but Pollan takes the argument to another plane altogether. As he follows the food chain of industrial, organic, and even foraged foods, he delves into the government’s involvement in our diets and the perils facing family farms with graceful prose and strong arguments. Like a good novel, I read the book in one sitting, transfixed by the personal story Michael Pollan shared as well as the national and global ramifications of our diet.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Few books caused as much of a stir last year as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s examination of the American food production system. It exposed, among other things, the fact that Americans are eating way, way too much corn. Corn is in nearly everything at the supermarket, from the corn chips (duh!) to the meat to the walls of the building itself. The most prevalent use of corn, as some of you can no doubt guess, is high-fructose corn syrup, a sugar substitute found in nearly every kind of processed food. The effects of this diet, high in refined carbohydrates, are evident all around us. How can Americans – a people obsessed with dieting and health food – be so tragically unhealthy?This paradox and others are the subject of Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. First published as an essay in the New York Times Magazine, In Defense of Food traces the rise of “nutritionism” – the ideology that states that the best way to understand food is as a sum of its component parts. This ideology took hold of food science sometime in the early 60s, changing how Americans thought about eating:Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help.Nutritionism became politically useful in the 1970s, when the federal government, reacting to soaring rates of heart disease in post-WWII America, tried to tell people to eat less red meat and dairy products. Cattle ranchers took issue with this idea, and nutritionism came to their rescue. After considerable pressure from the meat and dairy industries, the government backed down. “Plain talk about actual foodstuffs – the committee had advised Americans to ‘reduce consumption of meat’ – was replaced by artful compromise: “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.'” With that one sentence, the meat and dairy industry was able to shift the blame for heart disease from a kind of food to a nutrient – saturated fat.As Pollan points out, saturated fat was the first nutrient to be vilified, but hardly the last. Anyone who tried the Atkins diet can tell you with what low esteem most Americans held carbohydrates in the early 21st Century. For each villain nutrient, a counterpoint must exist. For every saturated fat, carbohydrate, or trans fat there is the corresponding “good” cholesterol, antioxidant, or omega 3 fatty acid of which we must certainly get more. The trouble with the science behind nutritionism is that we simply don’t know enough about how these nutrients work to properly utilize them (except in whole foods, where these nutrients exist naturally).Take for instance nutritional supplements. For years, we’ve been told by scientists (and their journalist mouthpieces) that supplementing our diets with pills containing omega 3s or antioxidants would help us be healthier. It turns out this isn’t the case. Studies have shown that people who take supplements are healthier than the general population, but this is likely because they are the kind of people who take supplements. In other words, they are educated people who take a greater interest in their health and are therefore more likely to eat nutritious foods and exercise. The supplements themselves had no positive effects, and in some cases, they had negative ones. Beta-carotene, found naturally in several foods, including carrots, is a terrific antioxidant. On its own, as it is in a supplement, beta-carotene actually acts as a pro-oxidant and has been linked to several types of cancers.Where does this leave the American eater? If we can’t trust those health labels in the supermarket, if the scientists and journalists don’t know for sure what causes food to be beneficial or harmful, what the heck should we do? What should we eat? Pollan spends the final part of the book answering these questions with several general guidelines of how and what to eat. These include fairly straightforward ideas, like “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves,” to other, not so obvious ideas, like “Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism.” What does he mean by that latter rule? Don’t eat anything new? Hardly. Pollan spends much of the book arguing for a return to the food culture of our great-great grandparents, who ate foods like apples, potatoes, bread, milk, eggs, rather than things like mini-bagel pizzas, Cheetos, Snackwells, etc. When Pollan suggests avoiding non-traditional foods, he’s really proscribing foods made from soy that weren’t traditionally made from soy. So tofu is okay, but soy milk might be suspect. The reasons behind this particular bit of advice are well grounded, in that soy eaten in curd form is a terrific source of protein, while other forms of soy do little other than add needless estrogen to our bodies.In Defense of Food succeeds in offering a path to a healthier life (it’s succeeded in getting me out early every Sunday morning to hit the farmers market), but it’s far from flawless. Pollan readily acknowledges that not everyone in America can afford to eat the way that he does. One of his rules is to pay more for less food (in other words, pay for smaller quantities of higher quality food). One has to wonder how the working poor in America would react to that suggestion. Pollan’s advice is aimed at the segment of the American population that can afford to pay more for their produce and meat, but doesn’t. At times, Pollan falls into the trap of using food science to attack itself, citing one study to rebuke or debunk another. He sees the hypocrisy in this, but can never fully escape the language and assumptions inherent to the field.Pollan acknowledges these flaws, but skirts around a greater one, in my opinion. Much of Pollan’s suggestions point towards a retreat from the modern American food production system, a system run by corporations like Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland. These corporations, in the interest of bottom line profits, have created a system that produces enormous quantities of poor quality food, by choosing varieties of vegetable based on yield rather than nutritional quality, by dousing those crops with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and by stuffing cattle with unnatural foods (cows were never meant to eat corn, yet most eat nothing but for the last few months of their lives) and antibiotics. This system serves no one’s best interests but those of their shareholders. The system pollutes the land (bovine flatulence produces more greenhouse gas every year than automobiles), destroys the American family farm, and, make no mistake about it, is slowly destroying our bodies. The food these companies produce is cheap, but when the secondary costs are considered, is it worth it? Pollan stops short of taking any of these companies to task, and comes nowhere near stating equivocally that the globalization of food production has actually robbed us of nutritious food. In a book that claims to be a manifesto, I expected a little more vitriol.Part 2