The first year of the University of Wisconsin’s Go Big Read program has inspired what some might call a page-turning debate.
Well-known journalist Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” the 2009-10 Go Big Read selection, aims to reframe society’s attitude toward nutrition and eating. Pollan serves up this dictum: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
While his thesis sounds simple enough, the book has found pointed critics among its many enthusiastic supporters. Tomorrow, Pollan will defend “In Defense of Food” in person at a large-scale talk at 7 p.m. in the Kohl Center, titled “In Defense of Food: The Omnivore’s Solution.”
Chancellor Biddy Martin, who initiated Go Big Read, as well as another common reading program during her time as provost of Cornell University, will give the event’s opening address.
“I’m imagining it will be a lively evening with people in the audience from different backgrounds and with different points of view,” Martin said, who will also moderate a Q&A session with Pollan after his lecture using questions posted on the Go Big Read blog.
Martin had final say in the Go Big Read selection, choosing from a whittled-down list of four books. While “In Defense of Food” carried with it an organized interest from the start, Martin said the book’s multi-disciplinary qualities were a strong deciding factor.
Indeed, over 60 courses are incorporating “In Defense of Food” into the curricula across a surprising range of disciplines, including everything from psychology to journalism to international studies.
The Center for Humanities began organizing Pollan’s visit to campus two years ago, long before the birth of Go Big Read, much less the selection of his book. Vincent Smith, a project assistant at the Center for Humanities, agreed with Martin about the book’s wide-ranging applications.
“What Pollan has to say is important for everyone to hear,” Smith said. “Whether an individual agrees with what Pollan’s saying or not is largely irrelevant. It’s the conversation that it should create that’s important.”
The conversation across campus, the community and even the state has at times reached a boiling point.
An association of Wisconsin dairy processors has formed in retaliation to the book, calling their group In Defense of Farmers. The group plans to attend the Pollan lecture, donning T-shirts with the slogan, “Eat food. Be healthy. Thank farmers.”
“The University of Wisconsin is a world renowned center for teaching and research in agriculture, an institution we support and believe in,” the group said in a statement. “However, the choice of this book, the unintended endorsement of Pollan and these views simply cannot go unanswered.”
Madeleine Fairbairn, a UW Ph.D. candidate, said at a recent SociETAS discussion of the book Pollan is quick to ignore socioeconomic status in his argument.
“(Pollan’s argument) is bad particularly because it ends up reinforcing class distinction in failing to mention it,” Fairbairn said.
The controversy has even given rise to rumors of organized protesting at Pollan’s lecture, Smith said.
“We knew from the Pollan blog that there were many individuals who did contest what he had to say,” Smith said. “Some of their comments were actually taken off the blog because they violated the rules.”
Yet amid the criticism, many have acknowledged the importance of a book like “In Defense of Food.”
Chadbourne Residential College faculty director and psychology professor Caton Roberts sees value in the issues Pollan puts on the table.
“Creating more local solutions to lots of problems, including the problem of food production and preparation is an excellent dialogue for us to be having in an era of limited energy resources and questions of public health,” said Roberts, who will lead a “Prep for Pollan” workshop at CRC this evening.
Despite disagreement among readers, Martin remains optimistic about the ability of Go Big Read to foster important connections in the UW community.
“It’s hard, at a university this large and this decentralized, to generate common experiences,” Martin said. “My hope is that we will end the year having had lots of discussion and debate and feeling as though we’ve shared an intellectual experience.”
– Kyle Mianulli contributed to this report.