Mark Bittman on Writing and Reading Food Books

BITTMAN: I just finished “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann. I have walked about two-thirds of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” but I think I’ll stop. I read a lot of book reviews and read all of Blake Bailey’s biography reviews on Philip Roth, including a very long one by James Wolcott. He recommended it so I just read about half of it. It happens with a lot of books. I read a third to a half and think, “I get it. I feel a little guilty about it.

BOOKS: How did you finish a book as long as “The Magic Mountain”?

BITTMAN: There are those political arguments that last for 10 or 20 pages that I could have done without, but the first few hundred pages are just captivating. I took time off in the middle of the day and stayed in bed for an extra half hour reading it.

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

BITTMAN: I try to stay on top of fiction and read old stuff that I think is important. I reread Ursula Le Guin recently and Sylvia Plath this year. I feel like I wasted a lot of time reading. I want to feel like I have read important works, but there are writers considered important that I find unreadable, such as novelists William Gaddis and Thomas Bernard. Sometimes I don’t have the energy for hard jobs. I want to read Lee Child’s Mysteries of Jack Reacher. I want to be in a mental tub equivalent to watching Netflix.

BOOKS: What non-fiction do you read?

BITTMAN: I read food stuff if it’s material I don’t know. With the more serious books on food, you end up reading about agriculture, labor, and even slavery. This leads to reading about how the world is and could be shaped. I’m trying hard to find a reading list on how to make the world a better place. For example, I read “The World for Sale” by Javier Blas and Jack Farchy, which deals with traders and how the world’s wealth is amassed.

BOOKS: What recent reads have you found for this list?

BITTMAN: The novels “The Overstory” by Richard Power and “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid. It was fantastic in the way he approached immigration, globalization and borders. Rebecca Henderson’s “Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire” is one of them. Also “Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith, which deals with the octopus and cognition. His most recent book, “Metazoa”, is more granular and interesting. I also read “The Meditations” by Marc Aurèle. I was proud of myself for reading this, but it’s actually easy. I found Virgil impossible. Raj Patel’s upcoming book with Dr. Rupa Marya, “Inflamed”, is another. It draws parallels between what is happening in our body and what is happening in the world. This is the kind of cookbook that interests me.

BOOKS: Was there an essential book for you that linked the way we eat to the future of the world?

BITTMAN: Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” was decisive. It was brilliant reporting and also showed me that there is an appetite for serious food writing. I would have liked to realize it by reading “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappé, but I did not. The second major book was “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel, which was the first book that examined the world food situation in a political way.

BOOKS: How many cookbooks do you own?

BITTMAN: I probably still have 300. It’s not a huge amount. They are everywhere. There are about 50 of them in the kitchen, but a good percentage of them are mine. Just because you write a recipe doesn’t mean you remember it. If you ask me to bake angel food cake, I have to look.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Save Penny Jane»And can be reached at

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