Top positive review
70 people found this helpful
Deceptively easy-to-read book on a complex topic
on February 23, 2004
In many ways Manning has written a remarkable book. The basic thesis, very gently stated by the author, is that the advent of agriculture has caused the loss of what it means to be human by replacing our ancestral senses of the many flavors and varieties of nature with the dull security of industrial monoculture based overwhelmingly on just three crops. It has also heralded the breakdown of social egalitiarianism, led to vast numbers of malnourished poor worldwide, and is ultimately unsustainable on its current scale.
In making his argument, Manning wanders through numerous disciplines: cultural anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, climatology, cognitive science and ecology, even religion. He begins with an explanation of how agriculture developed and spread despite its apparent disadvantages to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (worse nutrition, less leisure-time) and then develops these disadvantages more fully, surveying the prevalence of famine in agricultural societies throughout history and moving through the detrimental social and ecological effects of industrial agriculture such as how it enabled the feeding of high concentrations of cheap labor.
`Against The Grain' hits a weak spot in looking at modern agricultural corporations, in particular ADM. At this point, he draws less from his apparent strengths as a writer and person - his awareness and appreciation of nature and his solid understanding of the historical breadth and scope of agriculture's effects - and loses his effectiveness as his underlying anger is displayed. Fortunately he leaves himself time to recover and does so in discussing the formation and driving force behind the modern industrial agricultural diet, arguing that its intention is more to promote efficient (and profitable) agriculture than good nutrition. He ends with a plan for reversing the worst of agriculture's effects through small steps - advocating the patronage of farm stands that are now prevalent in most urban centers (including my Chicago suburb), and giving us a glimpse of how he himself practices food sustainability.
Any book treating a subject as complex as the effects of agriculture on human society, even one with such a narrow focus as this one, could fill volumes of plodding data and cite vast numbers of bibliographical sources. Instead, Manning treats the subject nimbly, almost dancing through his arguments with a sense of precision and conciseness. He uses the term `gracile' in his book to denote speed and quickness while making a point about antelope, but the term could just as well apply to the book itself. Nevertheless, while I find many of his conclusions convincing, and the ideas themselves both engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself often wishing for more substantial backup for his assertions or a better system of citation. I have read a few books tangential to this material (particularly Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond which alludes to similar conclusions) and am familiar with many of the facts and events used by Richard Manning in developing his ideas, and still it seemed a little light. Someone reading this book without having read anything similar or related might well walk away unconvinced of his credibility or even his earnestness, and that would be a shame.
The book is deceptively easy to read. Despite Manning's obvious passion for the topic, he thankfully doesn't beat you over the head with his rhetoric. But I found that I needed to re-read some sections in order to catch the subleties of his argument (and as I write this I'm wondering when, with the stack of books I keep adding to, I'll have time to read it again). If you read 'Against The Grain' you may find you agree or disagree with Manning's conclusions, but regardless, you should feel that it was worthwhile.