Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I'm still reading The New Kings of Nonfiction, though I have just a story and a half to go. It turns out that it's largely a collection of serious and dense writing that is best digested piece by piece.

Until today, I thought the best work in the book was Power Steer by Michael Pollan. I have never bothered to read Pollan's books -- I've read a few articles by him, heard him on Fresh Air and figured I had the gist of what he has to say. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Etc. In 1997, I stopped eating meat due largely to concerns about the factory farming industry so I thought he's preaching, I'm already converted. Power Steer, though, is such an incredibly well-written piece, full of short, clear sentences and well-composed thoughts. It is also much more practical than sentimental when it comes to the consequences of factory farming. Some industry practices have become more humane in the past 10 years, but the facts remain that corn is not good for cows and that corn-fed beef is not good for humans.

This evening I dug into a story called Tales of the Tyrant. It lays out what it's like to be Saddam Hussein, how he got this way, and how he came to rule Iraq. How and where the author got so much information about this I don't know; I worked in a newsroom during the run-up to the U.S. war there and I saw very little of it. The author allows one of his sources to expound on his theory of Hussein's power: that he exemplifies what he calls a tribal mentality, taken to its furthest extent. Paranoia and violence reign and those outside the favored circle are not to be trusted. Power, not money, is the ultimate goal.

It makes me think of the other reason I'm still reading this book a month later: in addition to moving late last month, I have been watching The Wire. It's just as good as everyone says it is. Actually it might be better. It tells a story of drug kingpins who take and keep power in the same way Hussein does: rule by fear, concentrate power within the family, serve the leader above all else. And the housing projects in West Baltimore are roughly as well served by this as Iraq was.

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