I've been putting the books I read in the sidebar but haven't been writing much about them (or anything lately), but I thought I'd try and get back in the habit. Michael Pollan's carved out a nice niche for himself. If you read The Omnivore's Dilemma (which was terrific), In Defense Of Food is the sequel. It's a less ambitious book -- instead of talking about where our food comes from, it's just about what we should eat. He wrote a New York Times Magazine article last year that's basically the short version of this book. The really short version: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. But he's a good enough writer that he's able to take those three sentences and make a whole book, most of it really quite readable. It provides a lot of ammunition for talking to people about food and the evils of supermarkets. Good stuff. Made me want to join a CSA. Actually, there's a short documentary (25 minutes long) running on The Sundance Channel called Fridays at the Farm that's about a CSA in Pennsylvania and a guy who decides he wants his kids to grow up feeling closer to the food they eat. It's a beautifully done film -- I stumbled across it in the listings and DVR'd it and am really glad I did. It's definitely worth watching.
Punching In is Alex Frankel's attempt to be Barbara Ehrenreich, sort of. Frankel is a business writer who decided to get a bunch of service industry jobs and write about them. He ended up working for UPS, The Gap, Starbucks, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and the Apple Store, and getting rejected from jobs at The Container Store, Whole Foods, and Home Depot. I guess I liked the book -- I read it in two sittings, Frankel's a fine writer, it's reasonably engaging -- but it feels kind of like he sold it on proposal and ended up delivering a much less revealing book than he hoped to write. I am not surprised that working at The Gap is boring and involves a lot of folding. I am not surprised that working at Enterprise is boring and involves trying to upsell customers to buy insurance. I am not surprised that working at Starbucks is boring and involves tasting coffee. I am not surprised that working for UPS is boring and involves carrying heavy boxes. What did surprise me was that he was rejected from Whole Foods, The Container Store, and Home Depot, although since he was lying about his background and trying to game the online personality tests, I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised.
To be completely frank, I can't decide which of two lessons to take from Frankel's book -- I'll get to them in a second, but I need to set this up a bit. See, what Frankel did here was sort of what I did with Anonymous Lawyer -- I worked somewhere for a couple months, and then I wrote about it. The fact that Anonymous Lawyer is fiction and Frankel's book is non-fiction doesn't feel like a real difference to me -- he was trying to observe the worlds he was in and say something about them, and so was I. I've just assumed post-Anonymous Lawyer that if I was really smart, and really motivated enough to act on what I know would be best for me, I'd try and repeat the process -- go work somewhere else for a few months, and then write a satirical take on that other world. (To some extent, I'm probably equipped to write something reasonably interesting about either publishing or television, but I'm just not thinking about it in that way, at least not yet.) I still could, and should, and probably eventually will, once this TV stuff runs its course. But I lie to myself with the excuse that it all depends on the industry, and I'd really need to find what that right industry to satirize would be. I know it's a lie though. Or at least I thought I did. But here, Frankel's tried to do that, and, to at least a certain extent, he's failed. There's not really enough here. It's a 200-page book with a big font and a lot of white space on the page, and still he's got 5 jobs and a bunch of talk about rejections... he just didn't find all that much to say about his experiences. And so I can take one of two lessons from this. Either Frankel didn't execute this very well, or not all jobs are interesting enough to find things to write about. It's pretty easy for me to assume it's the latter, and since I liked the book well enough, and have absolutely no reason to think Frankel isn't a perfectly good writer and observer of things, that's where I'm going to put my money. In which case, it's just an overambitious idea executed as well as possible -- but what it tells me is, yeah, my justification that the industry really does matter is in fact not just a justification but a genuine thing to think about.