ABCs of summer food reading 

So many lovely books — so little time to digest them all

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Fiction and non-, I love reading year-round. Summertime is best, but with so many good books out there the picking is tough.

There's a fascinating little book story that surfaces once in a while, often in university circles, that points up our overwhelming book choices these days. It may well be apocryphal, but that doesn't make it any less intriguing. It goes like this: A man, usually called a "man of letters," once read every book, or every book in the English language.

It may have been Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the Italian philosopher bestknown for his 900 conclusions in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. Or Francis Bacon, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Whoever it was, it seems much more likely that he — no one ever suggests it may have been a woman who did all this reading — would have ploughed through all the books in English or Latin or whatever the printed languages were, rather than every book on the planet. I doubt that any of these gentlemen read Sanskrit.

Still, I love the idea that the number of books in someone's time and culture was circumscribed enough for a single human soul to read them all and stake out their thoughts accordingly.

At least you could have discussed good contemporary reads with someone without having to join a book club because chances were you had read the same book. For if we trust Google's algorithms — and why not, since we rely on Google for so much, including précis of books so we can pretend to have read them for whatever reason — we now have more than 130 million book titles on Earth.

So if you want to draw a manageable line in the sand around summer reading choices, you could do worse than picking a theme — say, food, given this is a food column after all. Beside, food is a wonderful trope for discussing just about anything.

To chase up food in fiction, try Lionel Shriver's latest powerhouse. Ironically titled Big Brother, it's not about big brother watching you but rather a very big, obese brother being watched. In this case by Pandora, his sister, who, once she realizes he lies about almost everything, tries to get the 175kg. Edison back down to size.

On the non-fiction side, you won't go wrong with Michael Pollan's latest release, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. It builds on Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, venturing into cheese-making and fermenting as well as the more obvious applications of "cooked," but not before reminding us of one of the first ways men discovered to "tame" fire (in this case "men" is the correct application): peeing on it.

But for my food reading this summer, I've gone to classics suited more to grazing than the full meal deal. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's History of Food; Food: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Brigid Allen; and the Penguin Book of Food and Drink, also an anthology, one edited by Paul Levy, all make for pleasant summer holiday companions that illuminate food and drink.


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