After a Hard Day’s Writing, Michael Pollan Likes to Unwind With a Novel

The list changes all the time, but these are a few of the bylines I will always read: George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Hilton Als, Jorie Graham, Don DeLillo, Michael Lewis, Ezra Klein, Louis Menand, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, Jia Tolentino, Louise Glück, Peter Schjeldahl, James Wood, Andrew Sullivan, Andrew Solomon, Leslie Jamison, Susan Orlean.

Your work often highlights the intersection of agriculture and nature. Do you have favorite science and nature writers?

Wendell Berry has been a formative influence ever since I began gardening and writing about our entanglement with nature back in the 1980s. He showed me a path out of the usual dualism — culture or nature — that has dominated American writing about nature since the Puritans. Plus he showed me how to construct a sturdy sentence.

This is a great moment for natural history writing. Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life” and Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt, “The Invention of Nature,” were both full of revelations as well as gorgeous prose.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

There are two distinct phases. While I’m researching and reporting on a book, I’m reading all sorts of relevant stuff — works of history, science and philosophy that shed light on the subject at hand. But as soon as I start drafting a chapter, I stop reading anything that bears directly on the subject and start reading fiction, exclusively. At that point I don’t want to take in any more information and I do want the rhythms of great prose to be the last thing I take in before falling asleep. I think it helps with the next day’s writing. Plus, getting to read fiction purely for pleasure is the carrot I hold out for myself as a reward for the work of reporting and writing.

What are the best books about food you’ve read?

Three books shaped my understanding of food and agriculture as a system: In the U.S. context, “Food Politics,” by Marion Nestle and “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser, and in the global context, “Stuffed and Starved,” by Raj Patel. A more philosophical treatise on food that influenced me is Leon Kass’s “The Hungry Soul.” And of course everything by Wendell Berry.

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