Thursday, August 27, 2009

My reading journey

It started because I was starved of fiction. If I had fiction nearby, even if it was a book that I'd read already, I wouldn't have made much progress with non-fiction (unless it was related to babies somehow). Consider the fact that I bought 'The Botany of Desire' by Michael Pollan five years ago in 2004 to read on a train journey from New Haven to New York. I read a chapter, found it interesting but closed the book after the journey and forgot about it. Till now. Before I left for Belfast, I grabbed a couple of books from my shelf one of which happened to be this book. And so I read it finally after all these years.

It was entertaining and interesting and a surprisingly easy read. Pollan writes about four different plants and how they have evolved over the years by catering to four different desires of ours. The apple catered to our (fundamental) desire for sweetness long before sugar was made. The tulip catered to our desire for beauty. Marijuana is obvious in what it caters to. The highly controlled conditions that it is grown in now and the strains that have been married to get the most desirable qualities (including the quality of intoxication) made for highly interesting reading.

The last section of the book dealt with the potato. The potato was supposed to cater to our desire for control, something that didn't really make sense before I read the section. I also thought that this would be a terribly boring section, because after all how interesting could a potato be? I was wrong because this was the most interesting section!

This section discusses genetically modified potatoes (hence, control) and also gives us some historical insight about potatoes in general. Doesn't seem too preachy either and we are left to draw some of our own conclusions. For example, the Irish Potato famine is now famous in history. Why was it caused? A fungal blight. But had there been a variety of different potatoes, one strain may have survived where the other failed. The widespread cultivation of just one variety led them to this mess. He doesn't pose the question outright but the parallels are obvious by now. In today's world, dominated by crop monocultures have we really learnt our lesson?

The whole process of how the bt genes were introduced into the potato plant and the concept of genetic instability was fascinating too. Although, that's not the reason I picked up 'The Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins as my next book. I picked it up because I saw it in the library and remembered it as one of the books that Pollan had mentioned in his book. This however happens to be one of those books that change the way you think about several things. Had I read this book say about 10 years ago, I might have been even more influenced by its message. I am glad to have read it at all.

What should I read next? I visited Michael Pollan's website out of curiosity and read the introduction and first chapter of his book 'The Omnivore's dilemma'. Sufficiently hooked, I've placed a hold for it in the library and am eagerly waiting for it. Is it here yet? Is it here yet?

Meanwhile I have been reading online. Starting with a couple of articles by Pollan in NY Times and branching onto other related but varied topics, I've been reading about the slow food movement, bt brinjals, mindfulness and even something called slow sex. It has been interesting for sure. I have more questions than answers right now. Perhaps the biggest one being if I will actually make any lifestyle changes based on all this reading. Will I? Won't I? Only time will tell...

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