RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Summer Reading

The days have lengthened so that the turkeys, doves, mockingbirds and wrens are singing out their territories and what a great time it is to just hang out on the porch. Yes, it's summer reading time. There's a lot of confusing stuff on the best-seller lists -- including hastily-assembled books that focus on conspiracies and evil that cannot be undone. So let's look for explanations and reason and hope.

First into the satchel goes Michael Pollan's brilliant The Omnivore's Dilemma. I know it's been excerpted in every magazine you get, but you need to read the entire thing, from industrial grocery-store food to sustainable/organic/local to hunted and foraged. Then sit down and start your own food diary. Try it for a week and see how many miles your food has flown to get to your plate and how many processors have handled it, just as an anthropological exercise. Pollan's gift is his ability to write without judging the various people and systems he's describing, so you needn't feel like a jerk if you've made some unsustainable choices. On the other hand, if you've been meaning to start a garden or to learn to prepare dandelion and chickweed, this book will jump-start your resolutions.

Now that you're thinking about the food system, pick up Food Wars by Tim Lang and Michael Heasman. Compared to Pollan, this book is tough, humorless going, but the well-reasoned arguments and careful documentation, especially about consumer health, pull the reader along. The authors describe the conflict between agricultural models. "Life sciences" depend on the inventiveness of science, while "ecology" teaches farmers to imitate nature. Unlike Pollan, these authors have definite opinions and aren't too polite to share them. How does policy affect the way our agriculture goes? How can policy ensure a healthy future? Much of their data comes from European sources and will be unfamiliar to Americans, because our science has been so completely co-opted by industry. But, if policy bubbles up from the people to the policy makers, as we must hope it does, our choices can create the future of health, resource use, social justice and the environment.

According to James Gleick, author of Faster, that future is coming at warp speed. Gleick's book, published in 1999, is practically an antique by today's standards, and that's the point. He argues that since development of the clock, then the wristwatch, then the atomic clock, technology has made us ever more obsessed with time and speed. Indeed, much of technology, from superhighway to the cell phone to athletes in Teflon clothing, is advanced on the basis of millisecond advantages. The irony, of course, is that speed does not enhance our lives in any real sense. The efforts of time-management designers and the industry of convenience don't create more minutes, hours or years. The natural rhythms of life still ground us -- the cycle of daylight, seasons, aging -- so all our haste is a clumsy illusion rather than a real advantage.

And speaking of illusions, one of the best reads this year has been Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Critics have picked at some of the data in this book, and the authors have had to recant a thing or two, but that helps make their point. The thesis is that many logical answers are just illusions, life is more complicated than we think, and we make rules and policies that cover the wrong things. Take, for example, the question of why violent crime rates have fallen fairly steadily through the 1990s. Better policing? Aging population? Tougher laws? Strong economy? The authors review each explanation, isolating each and seeing if the explanation really holds in other settings and histories. They reject each one and eventually speculate that abortion, legalized in 1973, means that fewer unwanted children are born. A woman doesn't end pregnancies unless she is worried about providing a good home for the baby. Fewer unwanted children have meant a falling crime rate.

Let's not leave the summer reading without a great big chunk of a biography. Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy by Louise W. Knight is a good one. The founder of Hull House, a settlement house that helped immigrants in Chicago deal with the process of assimilation, is often credited as the first social worker. This book details Addams' life from 1860 to 1899 and also describes the lively community of women activists at the juncture of the Populist and Progressive Eras. It's not hard to understand that the thirsty appreciate water and the hungry long for food. These women, working before women had the vote, were some of the most passionate and articulate in protecting the gifts of democracy. Often the daughters of industrialists, these were some of the first young women to obtain educations and to feel the weight and potential of creating social change. They worked tirelessly for suffrage, immigrant rights and peace.

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

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2006

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