Michael Pollan’s first ambition was to become an English professor, but a summer job at a magazine changed that. Instead he became a journalist, a best-selling author, and an evangelist of the sustainable food movement. The Harvard Book Store presents a reading with Pollan from his latest book, “Cooked,” at 7 p.m. Monday at the First Parish Church in Cambridge. Tickets are $5.
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
POLLAN: I teach at Berkeley so I read for that — actually it’s usually rereading. This semester I reread for the sixth time Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” which is a good book. When I’m researching an article, my bedside table is piled high with books. When I’m done researching a piece I treat myself to fiction. I’m also in a book group for the first time so that’s gotten me out of my ruts.
BOOKS: Have you read anything in the book group you normally wouldn’t have?
POLLAN: We read two of Marilynne Robinson’s books, “Home” and “Gilead,” both about religion. Though she’s a great writer, I might not have read both. After these austere Protestant books, I felt we needed to read Philip Roth’s raunchiest novel, “Sabbath’s Theater.” That occasioned the most interesting conversation and the most laughs. It’s a stunning book, but I’m loath to recommend it. It’s bound to offend most people.
BOOKS: What’s the last novel you read just for yourself?
POLLAN: I am reading one now that my son turned me on to: “Wake Up, Sir!” by Jonathan Ames. It’s very funny, basically updated P.G. Wodehouse. For work, I’m reading “Storming Heaven” by Jay Stevens, which is about the history of LSD. I’ve also been reading books on brain science, such as Antonio Damasio’s “Self Comes to Mind” and “Descartes’ Error.”
BOOKS: What has been your favorite research reading?
POLLAN: For “Cooked,” I read some great books. Richard Wrangham’s “Catching Fire,” about how cooking was pivotal to the evolution of Homo sapiens, was a key book. I finally read work by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, such as “The Raw and the Cooked.” I discovered a 19th-century book nobody reads, “The Essence of Cookery” by Karl Friedrich Von Rumohr. Everyone reads Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste,” which is kind of wonderful but full of science that’s wrong. Von Rumohr’s book is much smarter and more accurate. Nobody reads it because no one would expect anything smart on food from a German.
BOOKS: When you were studying for your PhD at Columbia University what was your focus?
POLLAN: I did a master’s thesis on Thoreau. I was really steeped in the American literary tradition of looking at nature as a substitute for God and a source of meaning. When I started gardening I realized there were problems with that way of thinking. For example, having been influenced by Thoreau’s hatred of fences, I didn’t put one around my garden in Connecticut. Woodchucks love it when you don’t have a fence. That made me really examine the whole idea of worshipping nature. That intersection, between nature and culture, launches all my work.
BOOKS: Have you looked for that intersection in your reading?
POLLAN: Yeah. I went looking for writers who could help me sort this out, and the king is Wendell Berry. I read him because he has an understanding of how best to behave in the natural world, and for his prose. He gave me license to put up the fence and shoot the woodchuck.
BOOKS: Do you have any reading rules?
POLLAN: Yes. Don’t hang out with dead meat. If a book isn’t working for you, move on. Time is too precious. Another important rule is to surrender to a book. Books reward us when we just sink into them in an uncritical, dreamlike way. I try as best I can to surrender to them and not argue with them.
— AMY SUTHERLAND
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