RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Summer Reads for 2001

When we started summer reading last year, our challenge was to learn about American food and the impact of our eating habits on people and places around the world. We had to read through a half dozen tomes--from Vandana Shiva's Stolen Harvest and World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset to Dan Morgan's 1979 classic Merchants of Grain and A.V. Krebs' The Corporate Reapers.

This year, thanks to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin) we can get a pretty good sense of what's going on in one well-documented 300-page read. Schlosser, an investigator with writing credits from Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone, spent two years researching. He begins his exploration with fast food's innocent early years as one entrepreneur and another sought to satisfy our cravings for salt, sugar, grease and, most of all, instant gratification. Then, following the industry as it matured, Schlosser takes us to 20th-century flavor labs and french fry factories. If fast food tastes good, and he says it does, it's because science tricks our tongues by adding flavor chemicals to ingredients like beef and bread that are so processed they have no flavor of their own.

My main objection to Schlosser's book is that he doesn't say the next thing that needs saying -- it's not just fast food that's overprocessed and chemically manipulated. Just about all the food that America eats, including seemingly clean, plastic-wrapped meats and veggies laid out in grocery store cases, has been industrially tweaked. So, when you read Schlosser's book, recognize that you can't get away from the processors just by cutting out fast food.

And now that you understand the industry, it's time to think about change. A good start is Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher. Published in 1973 and reissued by Harper and Row in 1989, Schumacher's thoughtful essays and speeches were designed to interest his fellow economists working with low-resource communities, particularly in India.

Today, rural America finds itself increasingly low-resource as our businesses -- with their agricultural base -- are taken over by corporate conglomerates. And, urban America finds itself drained as corporations move their bases to places with even fewer resources. Schumacher's solutions are so simple and commonsensical that industrial economic developers ignore him. He suggests, for example, that we learn to farm in ways that are "biologically sound, build up soil fertility, and produce health, beauty and permanence." In contrast, industry tells us to buy bigger machines and plant seeds that thrive after a commercial chemical rain.

If we are to change our lives in a world where everyone seems intent on grabbing the corporate rings, we need life examples to follow. Howard Zinn, the intrepid historian, showed us how to look at history from the view of the conquered rather than the conquerors. He studied Columbus's diaries, found a torturer, murderer, and racist under the pious Christian exterior and in 1982 published A People's History of the United States. How did Zinn develop his sense of finding a new truth in the land of the upside-down?

He tells us in You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. Published by Beacon Press, this Zinn classic is remarkable for its self-revealing, candid recollection of Zinn's slow journey from childhood in an impoverished immigrant American home to hopeful World War II warrior to 1960s Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam activist.

From ordinary life Zinn learned extraordinary life lessons. For example, he tells about his hitch as a World War II bombardier, which resulted in direct hits on a civilian target. Dropping the payload, perhaps the first napalm dropped on a target anywhere, constituted a normal day's work for a young man in a combat situation following orders. A chance remark by a friend -- "You know, this is not a war against fascism. It's a war for empire ..." -- stayed with Zinn for the rest of his life.

Other ordinary life experiences -- working in a factory, using the G.I. Bill of Rights to get an education while raising a family, getting a job in the deep south teaching young African-American women at Spelman College -- eventually led Zinn to an activist life in the Civil Rights movement and then the movement against the war in Vietnam. As readers, we see Zinn's understanding grow, and we can forgive our own slow journeys.

A youngster that apparently came into the world with an activist nature, Danny Seo has written Be The Difference (New Society Publishers). Subtitled A Beginner's Guide to Changing The World, Seo explains a bit about his journey as founder of Earth 2000 as a 12-year-old, and has continued his activism as a 20-something. This book is designed for beginners, especially students, but the chapters bring together ideas we can all use -- raising money, talking to lawmakers, bringing people together, maximizing the minutes you can squeeze from each day.

That's the fast track. There's a slow, steady track, too, and it's appropriate that we balance Seo's book with Doris Haddock's Walking Across America In My 90th Year (Villard Press). Haddock's book documents her journey, one step in front of the other, from California to Washington, D.C., for campaign finance reform. The book combines observations about landscapes and people with insights into her own life and musings about the nature of government and citizenship. When she started, few people understood the problems. Today, almost everyone has a sense of what the marriage of business and politics is doing to our future.

And, if you're still doubtful that the system is broken, finish your summer reading with Trust Us, We're Experts (JP Tarcher), the latest volume in the collected works of Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. These guys brought us Toxic Sludge Is Good For You and Mad Cow U.S.A., and in this newest book they continue building careful cases against the P.R. industry that has turned our lives into nonstop quests for industrial products. Revealing how P.R. experts work their magic and bring the experts into the circle, reading Rampton and Stauber guarantees the maximum number of "Aha!" moments per page. The final chapter "Questioning Authority" explains the verbal tricks used by the experts to insult, flatter and intimidate regular folks into behaving like, well, regular folks.

We can do better, starting this summer. So, pick up a good read and assure yourself that yes, you can make a difference.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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