Journalist Mark Bittman has spent much of his long career teaching Americans how to cook with his best-selling cookbooks and his longtime Minimalist column in the New York Times. In his newest book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal,” he steps away from the stove to ponder our tangled history with food and how we might better the world by changing how we eat. Bittman is one of the many authors speaking at this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, that runs Friday evening through Sunday (Aug. 6-8). Day passes for the festival are $150 or $55 for individual events.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
BITTMAN: I just finished Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” I’m about two thirds of the way through Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” but I think I’m going to stop. I read a lot of book reviews and read about every review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth biography, including a super-long one by James Wolcott. He recommended it so I just read about half of it. That happens with a lot of books. I read a third to a half and think, “I get it.” I feel a little guilty about that.
BOOKS: How did you finish such a long book as “The Magic Mountain”?
BITTMAN: There are these political arguments that go on for 10 or 20 pages that I could have done without, but the first several hundred pages are just gripping. I took time off in the middle of the day and stayed in bed for an extra half hour to read it.
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
BITTMAN: I try to stay current on fiction and read old stuff that seems important. I reread some Ursula Le Guin recently and some Sylvia Plath this year. I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time reading. I want to feel like I’ve read important work but there are writers who are considered important who I find unreadable, such as the novelists William Gaddis and Thomas Bernard. Sometimes I don’t have the energy for challenging works. I want to read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher mysteries. I want to be in a mental bathtub equivalent of watching Netflix.
BOOKS: What nonfiction do you read?
BITTMAN: I read stuff about food if it’s material that I don’t know. With the more serious food books, you end up reading about agriculture, labor, even slavery. That leads to reading about how the world is shaped and might be shaped. I’m striving to find a reading list about how to make the world a better place. For example, I’m reading Javier Blas and Jack Farchy’s “The World for Sale,” which is about traders and how global wealth is amassed.
BOOKS: What recent reads have you found for that list?
BITTMAN: The novels “The Overstory” by Richard Power and “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid. That was fantastic in how it addressed immigration, globalization and borders. Rebecca Henderson’s “Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire” is one. Also Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Other Minds,” which is about the octopus and cognition. His most recent book, “Metazoa,” is more granular and interesting. I also read Marcus Aurelius’s “The Meditations.” I was proud of myself for reading that, but it’s actually easy. I found Virgil impossible. Raj Patel’s forthcoming book with Dr. Rupa Marya, “Inflamed,” is another. It draws parallels on what is happening in our bodies and what happens in the world. That’s the kind of food book I’m interested in.
BOOKS: Was there a pivotal book for you that connected how we eat to the future of the world?
BITTMAN: Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” was pivotal. It was brilliant reporting and also showed me that there was an appetite for serious writing about food. I wished I had realized that when I read Frances Moore Lappé's “Diet for a Small Planet,” but I didn’t. The second important book was Raj Patel’s “Stuffed and Starved,” which was the first book that looked at the global food situation in a political way.
BOOKS: How many cookbooks do you own?
BITTMAN: I probably still have 300. It’s not a huge amount. They’re all over the place. There are around 50 in the kitchen, but a good percentage of those are by me. Just because you write a recipe doesn’t mean you remember it. If you ask me to make an angel food cake, I have to look it up.