Coming down from the trees: or please don’t edit library books


I decided to shift genres and read some nonfiction after checking out Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food at my neighorhood library. I’m slowly jumping on the food/nutrition/health bandwagon, as I’ve hit my forties and have been trying to eat more vegetables, and be a little bit healthier in my habits, both physical and mental.

When I started reading the book yesterday, I had only read a few pages of the book and  found a curious editing choice in the copy I checked out. Library books, of course, are often abused: they’ve been marked in, had coffee spilled on them (I’m guilty of this abuse), have torn or even sometimes missing pages. I once even found a leaf in a copy Arthur Plotnik’s The Urban Tree Book 

On page 6 of the library copy of the book, the previous borrower decided to take action (see PDF) and quibble with the author over word choice, scratching through the line “coming down from the trees,” not because the line is cliche, but because Pollan has chosen to refer to humans as an evolved species and not a divine creation. The “editor” in pen has inserted in the margin “being created by the All mighty God.”

I alternate between finding this funny in a Ned-Flanders sort of way (recalling Flanders marking out “darns” and “hecks” from either Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew) and finding it annoying. I can imagine this reader with pencil in hand, grumbling to himself and thinking, Gosh darnit I’m so sick-and-tired of these liberals and their making monkeys of us, I’ma gonna make the next person reads this here book think about the Truth and facts. Yep, they gonna know the Lord created the universe in six days and our world is six-thousand years old.

The  comment is not relevant to Pollan’s argument. The previous reader has co-opted the book as his own, as if it were his desire to have written a book about food and nutrition, but from the perspective of creationism.

After I posted this entry yesterday, I flipped through the book and discovered the previous reader had kept editing  as he read when Pollan made reference to humans being an evolved species, an animal, a mammal, a primate.

The first thing these edits caused me to think of is my own obsession with debates over evolutionary theory (a theory based on hard science; of course, the scientific method could arguably be an ideology; certainly evolutionary theory, or rather correctly, the theory of natural selection proposed by Darwin, et al, was much abused in Darwin’s own time through Social Darwinian theories) and creationism (an ideology that is a subset of the ideology of religious fundamentalism that makes serious leaps of logic, faith and misreading).  Pollan, interestingly enough, talks about currents in food science as nutrionism, “an ideology . . .[a way] of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions.”

Anyhow, I believe in evolution, in natural selection; I believe we are animals, mammals, and primates and there is good, solid, examined evidence to demonstrate that life primeval wasn’t Flinstonian in nature, as some creationists try to demonstrate.

That said, the next thing the creationist editor caused me to think about was a recent Facebook discussion about artistic intention and the intentional fallacy. Clearly, the creationist editor misread Pollan’s book, and read into it an argument against creation, and seems to ignore Pollan’s—from what we can gather through textual evidence only—intention: “My aim in this book is to help us  reclaim our health and happiness as eaters.”

Or is this Pollan’s intention? Perhaps he really is trying by writing about an interesting topic such as food and health to sideswipe us into believing we evolved tens of thousands of years ago and monkeys are our uncles ?

I tend to think opening the evolution-creation debate wasn’t Pollan’s intention, but I’m just another reader of a so far well-written book-length argumentative essay that tries its best to examine unexamined assumptions about food.

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3 thoughts on “Coming down from the trees: or please don’t edit library books

  1. That kind of editing makes me angry. I found a defaced book in Powells Books in Portland: about Hemingway’s writing: a radical feminist (I presume) added attacks and oaths in the margins and on the pages about what a sexist pig he was. It just seemed so stupid and mean and pointless.

    • It really is pointless. Why not write a paper or book on Hemingway’s alleged sexism or Creation and food? The pointlessness, as well as the distraction, is what got to me. I have no trouble with marginal notes in used books, some of which are entertaining and reveal what previous readers thought. But to actually start editing . . . Unless you own the book and happen to be seriously studying it word for word as a writer or scholar, then there really is no point.

  2. Surely the writers words will speak for themselves (maybe not now, but eventually), if the editing reader is so convinced that they are right.

    Sheesh, I dunno. It’s so hard living in this world when we’re all so damn different, with completely different ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Seems dithering and accusing people of their views hasn’t really got any of us very far up to now 🙂

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