“After a Hard Day’s Writing, Michael Pollan Likes to Unwind With a Novel”

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “After a Hard Day’s Writing, Michael Pollan Likes to Unwind With a Novel”:

“Getting to read fiction purely for pleasure is the carrot I hold out for myself as a reward for the work of reporting and writing,” says the author, whose new book is “This Is Your Mind on Plants.”

What books are on your night stand?
It’s a hodgepodge of titles, to be read, or skimmed, for a variety of purposes. For work, I’m reading Carl Hart’s “Drug Use for Grown Ups,” a galley of the neuroscientist Anil Seth’s “Being You,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and Alice Waters’s new manifesto, “We Are What We Eat.” For pleasure, I’m reading Mark Edmundson’s book on Whitman and democracy, “Song of Ourselves”; Orville Schell’s first novel, “My Old Home”; “The Committed,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and, partly for the upper body workout, Louis Menand’s “The Free World.”

What’s the last great book you read?
“The Overstory,” by Richard Powers, is a book that, the further I am from reading it, looms larger and larger in my imagination. My über-subject as a writer is our species’ engagement with nature, and in “The Overstory” Powers has done something no one else has done (outside of science fiction): Displace the human in favor of other species in a realistic narrative about people and the natural world….

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
David Lenson’s “On Drugs” is the smartest book I’ve read on the role of psychoactive compounds in our lives and culture. Written during the height of the war on drugs, it starts from the premise that getting high is just something humans do, and the different ways we do it reflect differing attitudes toward authority, capitalism and culture….”

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
The list changes all the time, but these are a few of the bylines I will always read: George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Hilton Als, Jorie Graham, Don DeLillo, Michael Lewis, Ezra Klein, Louis Menand, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, Jia Tolentino, Louise Glück, Peter Schjeldahl, James Wood, Andrew Sullivan, Andrew Solomon, Leslie Jamison, Susan Orlean.

Your work often highlights the intersection of agriculture and nature. Do you have favorite science and nature writers?
Wendell Berry has been a formative influence ever since I began gardening and writing about our entanglement with nature back in the 1980s. He showed me a path out of the usual dualism — culture or nature — that has dominated American writing about nature since the Puritans. Plus he showed me how to construct a sturdy sentence.

This is a great moment for natural history writing. Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life” and Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt, “The Invention of Nature,” were both full of revelations as well as gorgeous prose….

What are the best books about food you’ve read?
Three books shaped my understanding of food and agriculture as a system: In the U.S. context, “Food Politics,” by Marion Nestle and “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser, and in the global context, “Stuffed and Starved,” by Raj Patel. A more philosophical treatise on food that influenced me is Leon Kass’s “The Hungry Soul.” And of course everything by Wendell Berry.

Do you count any books as comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
I sometimes use cookbooks that way, but for me, magazines are what I turn to when concentration is fraying and I’m reading for the sheer pleasure of passing my eyes over type….

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Probably the fact that the coffee break was invented, or formalized, at a necktie company in Denver in the 1950s as a solution to a problem with quality control and productivity. The idea that an employer gives you time off to consume a drug the company provides free of charge should tell you all you need to know about the ties between capitalism and caffeine. I learned about this in a terrific work of history published last year: “Coffeeland,” by Augustine Sedgewick….

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I loved boy series like the Hardy Boys, but had a serious thing for Pippi Longstocking.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Tim Wu’s “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”…

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I put down more books than I finish. I’ve never felt an obligation to finish a book, in the same way I don’t stand by local sports teams when they chronically lose.

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