Michael Pollan: A Place of My Own

a place of my own, michael pollan, first edition

This one is for Michael Pollan fans; all others should seek out Omnivore’s Dilemma and dive in. In this book Pollan builds a building for himself to write in, with lots of help. He’s got a house with some land out back, a forested hill that overlooks the main building and backyard garden, and he’s transitioning to working from home. Who wouldn’t want a shed to retreat to that’s dedicated to their particular job/hobby?

Of course this could have been a quick and easy project, but Pollan’s got two ideas: (1) this is going to be a custom-made affair, and (2) he’s going to do as much of the physical building as possible.

What follows is sort of two books. In one, there’s the beautifully told story of the process of designing and building the thing. The book is chronological, and flows from ideation, design, and site selection to the physical building, with the foundation, walls, roof, and windows each getting a chapter. Each section is interspersed with reflection grounded in research on the history and philosophy of buildings. In a few places the two dovetail beautifully, and that’s when the book is at its best. I really did learn things about the relationship between human beings and our architecture here, and I think I experience buildings differently after reading it.

There’s also a pretty funny drama that unfolds between Charlie, the building’s architect, and Joe, the tradesman Pollan hires to help him do the construction. Turns out builders and carpenters are frequently at odds with architects, who’s relationship to their shared product is a bit more abstract. Pollan starts out fully affiliated with the architect with whom he dreamed up this building, but over the course of the book, his allegiance gradually shifts. Here’s a favorite bit:

By the time Joe and I headed into the second winter of construction, our work together, even though it amounted to something less than one day a week, had acquired its own particular rhythms and textures and talk. Joe reveled in playing the role of mentor to my eager if still-somewhat maladroit apprentice, except for the occasional period of sulking, when he would temporarily revert to sullen clockpuncher. These episodes were invariably occasioned by a suggestion from me that we should perhaps consult the blueprints before undertaking framing a window opening or hanging a door. “You mean the funny papers,” Joe’d grumble. “Well, you’re the boss,” he’d shrug, egging me to take control, or sides; I never was quite sure which. But in time such episodes became more rare, for as my own confidence as a carpenter grew, I was less inclined to regard Charlie’s drawings as revealed truth, much to Joe’s satisfaction.

Working outside in the brief, chill days of December had a way of hurrying this process along. Architectural plans look different in the cold, especially when you’ re rocking stiffly from boot to boot on top of fossilized mud, dispatching neural messages to toes and fingertips that go unheeded, and struggling to interpret lines on a drawing that only seem more ambiguous the harder you stare at them. Joe, can you see any framing to hold up that window? Nope, not a stick. Looks like he wants us to levitate that one. Under such circumstances the solidarity of carpenters is bound to intensify. After a while you can’t look at the blueprints—which by now have had their pristine geometries smudged by a parade of muddy thumbs—without thinking about the comfortable office in which they were drawn, the central heating and scrubbed fingernails and steaming pots of coffee.

The book is sprinkled with wonderful architectural diagrams and (at least in the first-edition hardcover I got from the library) very few images of the finished structure.

Lots of reviewers complained about some of the theoretical and historical sections of the book, but from reading these reviews I get the strong impression that everyone responded positively and negatively to different sections, so I don’t think you can skip the “boring” bits. For example, I found the bits explaining the differences between modernism and post-modernism pretty enlightening, and they resonate through the rest of the book

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I think the reason has as much to do with my relationship with the writer as anything. I’ve read a bunch of his books, and one I listened to as an audiobook read by Pollan himself. Having access to the author’s voice and personality like that makes reading feel much more like listening. Seriously, I wonder what it would be like to read Moby Dick if there was even a 10-minute recording of Herman Melville talking to be heard.

Here are a few relevant links:

Scenes from the Miami Book Fair 2011

miami book fair international 2011

Chuck Palahniuk takes the stage in a well-tailored pink striped shirt and tan leather pants, the headline act of Saturday night at the Miami Book Fair International, and the crowd is in a Beatlemaniaesque frenzy. He quickly relates a story told to him by an oncologist he sat across the table from at a dinner party. The oncologist was on a long flight, seated next to a particularly chatty lady. She talked about this and that, and eventually got around to the subject of wine. She could no longer drink it, she said, because it caused a small burning pain in the base of her neck. “I tried beer, and it caused the same burning sensation,” she told him. “I tried liquor, and still the burning. So I figured it was just the lord telling me I shouldn’t drink anymore. But it’s the wine I miss the most.” “That’s not the lord telling you anything,” replied the doctor. “I’m an oncologist, and what you’ve got is stage-4 lymphoma. You’ll be dead by the end of the summer.” The lady was much less chatty for the rest of the flight. And when she got back home she went to see her own doctor, who called the oncologist and said, “You were right: it’s cancer and she’s got 90 days to live. But you could have been less of a dick about telling her.”

miami book fair international 2011

“And that,” Palahniuk tell us, “is how every good story works. It changes us. Because now, every time you have a glass of wine, you’ll be looking for that little pain in the base of your neck.” Then he proceeds to throw dozens of large inflatable kidney-shaped brains into the audience, offering prizes to the few people who inflate theirs the fastest. In case you’re like me and you’ve never heard of Palahniuk, he’s written several novels that either have been or currently are being adapted into movies, including Fight Club. They’re sometimes called “transgressive” novels, and indeed the movies leave out the most startling sections of the books. He goes on to read two stories. The first includes a scene of a woman on a bus who reaches into her jeans, pulls out a bloody tampon, and begins swinging it around at the people around her, hitting them in the head with it. Pretty gross, but nothing remotely approaching the second story — two thirds of the way through which there’s a loud crashing sound in the back of the hall. It turns out to be somebody who fainted. This is actually not surprising — I was beginnint go get queesy and light-headed myself. The fainter is helped out of the room, and a few dozen others take advantage of the opportunity to escape, mostly from the reserved VIP seats at the front of the room, all replaced immediately by motley college-aged people from one of the standby lines outside. When the commotion dies down Palahniuk says, “at this point it’s protocol to ask whether it’s okay for me to keep reading,” which is met with plenty of approving cheers. The story is Guts, and the phenomena of people passing out during its reading is apparently well documented.

miami book fair international 2011

Palahniuk has the headline Saturday night slot of the book fair, and he plays the rockstar role, but my favorite bit of the above — his opening story — is exactly like thousands of moments that happen over the course of the week. Most are smaller-scaled but no less profound for it.

miami book fair international 2011

I should back up and say that in the past I’ve been a book fair skeptic. A fair about books is way closer to dancing about architecture than writing about music is, right? The process of selecting a book to read ought to be a slow and deliberate one, and having millions of books, plus crowds, is an anathema to the process, right? And the fact that the Miami Book Fair is the biggest in the nation, sprawling over six city blocks, several buildings of Miami Dade College, and a few ready-built tent pavilions, would seem to only make those matters worse. But this is my realization: It’s about moments. You can be changed by much smaller ephipanies than that a pain at the base of the neck can signal impending demise.

Earlier in the day: “In the basement the bag of fresh-picked garlic dries out, infusing the room with the pure rush of half sweat, half sex, half earth. That’s three halves, but anything pure consists of multitudes. Right, dude?” Jim Ray Daniels is reading from his entry in Tigertail’s South Florida Annual, a slim little volume with 54 pieces each limited to 305 words. Tigertail is a legendary local performing arts organization that also dabbles in poetry, and this, their ninth annual publication, is the first to branch out to prose writing. Daniels is going on in great detail about his love of garlic and his teenage sons: “They wrinkle their noses up at me like garlic is the looser in the back of class that stinks and everybody makes fun of.” And then he drops this one: “I’d trade all this garlic for a kind remark today.”

I have no idea how that reads on a computer screen to you, but in the room, for me, it was pretty striking. Sometimes, you realize how much you appreciate something only at the moment when you find yourself willing to give it up in exchange for something else.

Did I mention “sprawling”? The grid for Saturday’s events has nine time slots and twelve areas, and almost all the cells are filled with single-author or panel events. Sunday is a similar situation, and the preceding week has events every evening. There are something like 250 events.

miami book fair international 2011

And there’s the street fair: six city blocks around the university buildings that house the author events lined with tents of booksellers. One is dedicated to antiquarian booksellers. There’s a row of author tents, mostly folks with self-published books they’re promoting. There are tents dedicated to comic books, socially aware books, children’s books, and all sorts of special interests. There are religious tents (last year I got a free Quran at one). There are several tents with the name “Los Libros Mas Pequeños del Mundo” which carry delightfully small spanish-language books on all subjects. Books & Books, Miami’s famous independent bookstore, has a sprawling tent. McSweeny’s has a tent with their exquisite books and book-like objects. And there are many many tents selling used books, each with a different level of quality, organization, and attention to pricing. (The best time to buy books is at the end of the day on Sunday. The vendors, facing the prospect of packing up their unsold books, are in the mood to make a deal. And you won’t have to carry your haul around all day.)

miami book fair international 2011

There’s a big children’s area with rides, story readings, face-painting, and the like. There are food tents like you’d find at any fair. There’s a large stage set up at one end of the street fair with a revolving roster of bands playing all day. And there’s the China pavilion with booksellers, calligraphy, and performances. (Every year the book fair focuses on one country and brings in vendors, authors, and performers) When I stopped by, there was a 10-piece ensemble playing traditional Chinese music, with an encore of Jingle Bells.

miami book fair international 2011

miami book fair international 2011

My favorite speaker is Colson Whitehead. A minor literary star who decided for reasons not made entirely clear to write a zombie novel, he appears on a panel with a couple of other highbrow genre novelists, except that as soon as he takes the podium to deliver his opening remarks he owns the room. African-American, Whitehead begins his remarks with the opening lines from The Jerk, and goes on to point out that while he’s been publishing books regularly, he hasn’t been invited to the Miami Book Fair since 2003. “I usually spend my Saturday afternoon at home, weeping over my regrets, so this is a welcome change,” and he launches into the story of how he became a writer, in turns holding up his hands to show his “long delicate fingers and thin feminine wrists” to explain why he wasn’t fit for a life of labor and playing the disco hit MacArthur Park from his iPad into the podium microphone. The song’s lyrics would only make sense to him decades later when rejection slips for his first novel began to come in. (And yes, there is a line-by-line explanation of this, but it alas defeated my note-taking abilities.) He explains that his family watched a lot of TV when he was growing up, and that he saw A Clockwork Orange at age 10: “Mommy, what are they doing to that lady?” “It’s a comment on society.”

Just as funny if less charismatic is Andy Borowitz, who’s at the fair on the pretense of having edited a book of the “50 funniest American writers” and uses the opportunity essentially to deliver a stand-up monologue about the Republican primary race. “If you watch cable news because you want to be better informed,” he quips, “that’s like going to the Olive Garden because you want to live in Italy.” Much better political jokes come from the cartoon artist Mr. Fish, who’s razor sharp barbs spare nobody (he received death threats for his criticism of President Obama early in his administration), but who is touchingly accommodating of the Occupy Wall Street’s movement’s lack of an expressed agenda: “It’s like asking a group of starving people to agree on a menu before you’ll listen to them.”

miami book fair international 2011

I’m still not sure why the Miami Book Fair charges admission. The high-profile author events with limited seating, yes. But the street fair, a hundred or so tents of books large and small, famous and obscure, expensive and nearly free (or completely free, as in the case of a Quran I received last year) — why charge? In any case, it’s been so for years, and it doesn’t keep the visitors at bay. By noon the street fair is a throng, and the more popular author events fill Miami-Dade College’s Chapman conference hall with long standby lines to spare.

Even with Michael Moore closing out the last day of the Book Fair, this year’s line-up couldn’t match 2010’s star-studed roster, which included Jonathan Franzen, John Waters, and Patti Smith. But it turns out to be even more wonderful that way. The revelatory moments the book fair always brings are that much more special when they’re unexpected.

The “new” science of responsibility

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainWe appear to be in the middle of a rash of books that seek to “re-examine” morality, responsibility, and the whole idea of criminal blameworthiness, in light of recent scientific discoveries. And while the field of neurology has had an astounding couple of decades, a lot of the work of applying these insights to our commonsense understanding of blame seems to be falling flat.

Consider The Science of Evil (British title: “Zero Degrees of Empathy”) by Simon Baron-Cohen. Here the premise is that ugly behavior is caused by a lack of empathy with others, which strikes me as banal, if not reflexive. There’s a scale of empathy, you see (and you can take the test!), and those with low to empathy are more likely to be “evil”. Of course your empathy score is a combination of nature and nurture, and people who normally have normal empathy can have temporary bouts of un-empathy. It’s all supported by research, but it’s also, I think, supported by our commonsense understanding.

Another book making the rounds is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. (You can hear him discuss it on Fresh Air.) Maybe I’m overinformed, but Eagleman’s central claim — that behavior is caused by brain chemistry — got little more than a “duh” out of me. His observation that the brain consists of a number of competing actors, and that the conscious mind is more an observer of decisions than a king, is lifted from the work of Daniel Dennett and others. And the idea that the criminal justice system should take people’s brain states into account when passing sentences is old hat to anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology; in fact our notoriously slow-changing and backwards justice system has actually been incorporating these ideas.

Eagleman’s big example of how brain chemistry cause our behavior is the pedophile who was cured and returned to normal when a suddenly discovered brain tumor was removed. But just because behavior in one person was linked to a tangible brain defect outside his control does not mean that we should re-evaluate our notions of blame in general. Some actions are within a person’s self-control and some are not. If Eagleman has a worthwhile message, it’s that the vast majority of decisions fall somewhere in the middle, and that our apparent free will is, much more so than we realize, an illusion of how our minds work.

The basis of that realization is actually decades-old psychological experiments (e.g. the pantyhose experiment), but it’s an idea that’s resisted by conventional wisdom. The value of Eagleman’s book (and his current publicity tour) is to spread this idea.

Miami book fair shopping guide

books In the past I’ve questioned the point of going to a book fair, but of course there are lots of great things about the fair. Hopefully by now you’ve “scoured the program”: and figured out which author events you’re attending. Now it’s time to hit the tents and look at some books. There are a couple of hundred exhibitors, and many have thousands of books, so you’re going to be overwhelmed. Even if you’re not planning on buying anything, bring a couple of sturdy tote bags, just in case. Here’s a taxonomy of booths you’re going to find, in ascending order of how useful I, personally, find them.

  • Sponsor booths: Bless the sponsors, for they make the book fair possible. Some of them are actually great organizations, too, such as WLRN and the Arsht Center. But you’ve got books to see and no time to chat. Walk on by.
  • Libros en español: Actually some of these are fun to look at. In particular the books in the Mexican pavilion are fun to browse for their interesting, European-style cover designs.
  • Spiritual/religious stuff: Lots of books are religious books, and lots of book stores are religious book stores. If that’s your thing, have at it.
  • Single-book booths: These are mostly lunatics with a self-published title and to be avoided, however one guy with a guide to retiring into homelessness is completely entertaining and worth checking out (you’ll see a chair made of pvc pipe and soda bottles).
  • Event booths: For example, the Key West Literary Seminar has a very nice booth with a carefully culled selection of food books (food books being the theme of their January 2011 get together).
  • Used books: Just be careful — it’s very easy to buy more than you can comfortably carry for the rest of the day. Come back at the end of the day on Sunday when you’re going straight home — odds are you’ll be able to get a better deal then anyway. The better used book booths have their stuff meticulously organized into categories. I gout a copy of a book published by UM in 1970 about the effects of pollution on Biscayne Bay from Leedy’s books for $10, but if you’re in the market for Freakonomics, The Audacity of Hope, a Kurt Vonnegut novel, or something along those lines, you should be able to find them used for very nice prices.
  • Historical/collectors books: You book collectors know who you are. For the rest of us, these are lots of fun to browse (they sort of merge with the category above to some extent).
  • The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses: This one is worth seeking out — literary journals you haven’t seen since that time you got lost in the library at college. But lots of the writers in these publications are the stars of tomorrow, and some are hardcore avant-gardists. Generally all these publications are exceptionally well edited, and they’re beautiful as little mini-book objects. Many have art and photography in addition to poetry and short stories. When I stopped by, they were going 2 for $2 or 5 for $5(!), and i found it irresistable not to grab a bunch just on the basis of covers.

One last thing — DO stop by the Mexican pavilion to eat. They have awesome stuff, not the least of which are shockingly good mole pork enchiladas. Yum.

Miami International Book Fair – a quick flip through the guide

mitchell kaplan

I went to see Eugene Robinson and Pat Conroy last night; both were really interesting, and as entertaining as John Waters in their own ways. (That’s Mitchel Kaplan, owner of Books & Books the patron saint of the fair, introducing Conroy.) But onward and upward! Here’s what’s on my to-do list after a cursory look through the Fair’s guide and website. You should still check out Hillary’s guide for the full scoop. I’ll be adding to this post a little bit throughout the day from the fair.

Friday, Nov. 19

  • 8pm, Patti Smith: Hopefully you have your ticket already!

Saturday, Nov. 20

  • 11:30 am, Dave Eggers: Talking about his book Zeitoun. Like he’s ever not interesting. (Tickets required, but free. Hit the site now to get them. Room 3210.
  • 2 pm, Write that Book Already!: I think this is part sort of a motivational thing, part guide to the publishing industry. I’m not aware of planning to write a book, but this might be fun? Room 3314.
  • 3:45 pm, Storyteller Gerald Hausman: In the kids area! Folktales from Native Americans, the Caribbean, and and Old Florida.
  • 4 pm, Climate and the Environment: “Experts exchange views, both terrifying and hopeful.” I wonder if there will be any experts or pro-geoengineering folks on the panel. Room 7106


  • 11 am, How to Get Published Successfully: This sounds like the guide to the publishing industry. Also: “harnessing the power of social media.” Room 3314.
  • Also at 11, Doxtors Without Borders – Writing on the Edge: Based on a book for which a bunch of writers and a photographer visited DWB sites around the world. Could be amazing! Room 7128.
  • 12 pm, Haiti Noir: Murdes and mysteries set in post-earthquake Haiti. Moderated by Les Standiford. Presentation Pavilion A.
  • 2:30 pm, Bits N Pieces Puppet Theatre, Hansel and Gretel: Four words: Nine foot tall puppets. Once Upon a Time Stage, kids area.
  • 5 pm, Jonathan Franzen: On Freedom, and on being Franzen. Room 3201.

John Waters at the book fair

john waters miami international book fair

Downtown Miami was going crazy last night because of the Heat game, but a few blocks away there was a smaller, but in its own way more intense gathering. John Waters was in town for the Miami International Book Fair. In a huge room at Miami Dade College (don’t call it “Community!”), Waters packed in a crowd of intense folks of both genders and all ages — many born after his most notorious films were released.

Waters is a charmer. He’s got the self assurance about him that comes to many with a ge, though I get the feeling he was a pretty confident guy from the beginning. He was interviewed by my pal Brett Sokol (who, incidentally, did a great job, tho the q&a afterwards suggested that you could throw absolutely anything at Waters and elicit a stream of fascinating anecdotes), who at one point asked if Waters and his friends felt cool when they were making the first few movies. “Well, yes,” Waters responded. I don’t know exactly what it is about film directors, but they seem to almost always be fascinating people. (For example, check out the video of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog chatting recently—the conversation is irresistqble even if you’ve never seen a single film by either of them.) Here, then, a few of my favorite of Waters’ anecdotes from last night:

  • He had a subscription to Variety when he was 12 years old.
  • He’s currently got a film in pre-production, but his last film fell through/was rejected by the studio. It was “a children’s Christmas movie … about a family of meat thieves.”
  • When he was a little kid, he’d look up Tennessee Williams in the library, and the index would say “see librarian,” because Williams’ work was considered controversial. Same thing when he looked up “homosexuality.” See librarian. Waters quips, “well, I could see that the librarian was homosexual…” But he quickly makes an interesting point — not just that there’s absolutely no reason to keep any book fron children, but that it’s a bad idea to keep children from exploring anything that they’re interested in, because the things that they’re forbidden from doing can come to loom large in their imagination and form obsessions later in life. (He said it much smarter than that…I’m working off some sketchy-ass notes here.)
  • Complete strangers tell him their darkest secrets all the time. “I’ll get on a plane, and the woman next to me will lean over and say, ‘my whole family fucked me Easter morning.’”
  • “Don’t as a fat person to be Santa Clause for Christmas — that’s rude!”

He also talked about the current state of student filmmaking, and how good the scene is for people like him coming up now, what with studios being happy to fund low-budget indie work on the hopes that it might pay off. Converesely, he’s having a hard time attracting the ~$5 million or so budgets he needs to make the polished movies he currently does, because at that price studios only want blockbusters. And he had a fascinating bit of advice for aspiring filmmakers: watch lots and lots of movies, and watch them with the sound off, because dialog and music are a distraction from cinematography, which the lack of sound forces you to analyze.

john waters signing

So, wow, the book fair is awesome. After the talk, Waters sat at a table, and everyone and their face-pierced niece lined up and got to chat, be photographed with, and get their book signed by him. No kidding, one guy had three copies of the new book (which, by the way, is awesome, and you totally should get a copy. If you hurry you might be able to nab a signed coppy at Books & Books), plus another of Waters’ books, plus a guitar, and everythign got signed and the guy posed with Waters and the guitar and took up long moments from everyone’s life and it was totally cool. There are about a million authors coming between now and Sunday (weekday evenings, plus all day Friday – Sunday).

You should check out my awesome girlfriend’s guide to the bookfair (she’s deep in the Books & Books crew, so the “insider” thing is no line), and check back here — I’m going to be more or less camped out over there for the next few days, and with any luck blogging regularly. BTW, earlier this week I wrote a quickie thing about Waters’ mustache at The Heat Lightning, where it’s JOHN WATERS WEEK!


Pinker takes Gladwell to task (Malcolm responds, tho he focuses on football, which is mentioned just in passing by Pinker), and Tkacik is even harsher:

But in examining Gladwell’s success concurrently with his prescriptions for achievement, even his harshest reviewers damned themselves with faint criticism. […] when The Economist embraced the book’s “engaging” and “intriguing” case studies while wryly enclosing the overarching “big idea” in quotation marks, it overlooked Gladwell’s refusal to engage meaningfully with the world of ideas at all.

But all I’m hearing is “This collection of essays
written over the last ten years is not as good as “The Tipping Point”:The Tipping Point:. Furthermore, they might be inconsistent with each other!” Give it a rest people. Gladwell soars high, and his occasional blunders are fun, because hey, even us ordinary folks can catch them. And do not say that he hasn’t broadened your thinking, Maureen Tkacik, because I’m sure he has broadened your thinking. The pasta sauce thing redeems whatever intellectual overreaching he may be guilty of.

How is it a postmodern literature?

The list of 61 essential postmodern reads gives points for: • author is a character • self-contradicting plot • disrupts/plays with form • comments on its own bookishness • plays with language • includes fictional artifacts such as letters • blurs reality and fiction • includes historical falsehoods • overtly references other fictional works • more than 1000/less than 200 pages • postmodern progenitor. Nice, but where is Special Topics in Calamity Physics? (via)