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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What’s Your Literary Diet?

Just as I am what I eat, I am what I read. Books fuel my mind and soul. When I finish reading a book, I usually feel satisfied, but in some cases I'm still hungry, and occasionally a book just doesn't sit well in my stomach. Although I don't follow any set literary diet, I have reaped the greatest benefits by reading extensively from a wide variety of materials. Every book I read is essential in its own way, and without the balance provided by each of their nutritional values, I think I would be malnourished. Of course, I can always eat better, but given the number of hours in my day, I strive to maintain a healthy intake and my soul seems to crave that which it needs. So, just as the food pyramid encourages robust physical health, perhaps there is a similar model for books — one that fosters optimal intellectual health.

Grains sit at the base of the pyramid. Most grains are filling and are a necessary staple to any diet. Books at the base of the reading pyramid are no different. I have read many staple books. The works of Dan Brown and Philippa Gregory come to mind; The Da Vinci Code and The Other Boleyn Girl are riveting and masterfully crafted. I admire "grain" books for their intricate story lines, well developed characters, and ability to connect me to the characters and feel everything that they experience. My Sister's Keeper is a perfect example of this. Picoult tied my heart to that book, making it a much more powerful read. Grain books are amazing pieces of literature, but they leave social, political, and racial injustices largely unexplored. So, just like the bread you get at a restaurant before the main course is meant to spark your appetite, reading grain books has encouraged me to find more detailed texts for deeper reading on subjects. For example, Philippa Gregory's stories about rags-to-riches monarchies were so fascinating that they ignited my interest in medieval history and royal lineage, and I have borrowed countless histories from the library trying to set the complex stories straight in my own mind.

Fruits and vegetables are just above grains in the food pyramid. I love fruits. The colors, textures, and tastes make each fruit unique. Each time I read a "fruit" book, I feel as if I have learned something from one of its qualities, be it the book's colorful language or characters, the sweetness or sourness of its message, or the intricate layers the author has crafted to create texture. I always finish a fruit book satisfied. My favorite such book is The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; I loved the author's use of multiple narrators to tell the story from varying perspectives. I also marveled at the extended metaphors that were developed throughout the text. Another favorite fruit book is The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, a wonderfully crafted narrative of a group of women and the bond they share. The allusions and imagery Diamant uses add another level to this epic novel from a unique point of view.

"Vegetable" books are the ones you don't always want to read, but you have to anyway. For me, vegetable books are the books about something that does not interest me. For example, Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder, was a thick text about philosophers. It took time to get used the style of writing, long chapters, and dull story line, but after I finished it, I could feel the vegetable-like benefits. I felt healthier for having read a book so far outside my usual diet. The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, was initially a vegetable book for me, as well. I didn't like the beginning of the book, had a very hard time believing the middle of the book, and was mad when the final plot twist happened and everything I had been told to believe was reversed. I didn't realize how powerful and engaging the writing had been until the book made this unexpected turn. I felt sympathy for the main character and finished the book with a much more open mind. The thing about vegetables – and vegetable books – is that they are rarely as bad as you initially make them out to be. Once you get used to their taste and experience their nutritional value, eating them doesn't seem like such a pain.

"Protein" books are deeply motivating stories, autobiographies about success and perseverance, or the books that make you think. They are meaty, dense with meaningful content that sticks with you. The first protein book I remember reading was Lance Armstrong's autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. Lance's vulnerable and honest voice inspired me to reevaluate the way I lived my life and the things I deemed important. The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria, was full of ideas about American culture and "the rise of the rest." It was an enlightening book about the changing of power globally. Protein books give you the power to question the world around you and insight into things that might need to be changed.

Dairy products come next as we move up the pyramid. Not all readers can tolerate "dairy" books. These stories tell the sad or unsettling tales of loss, loneliness, injustice, or desperation. Ceremony was hard to digest, but this beautifully crafted story by Leslie Marmon Silko opened my eyes to how cruel the United States has been to its minority veterans. It also shed light on the reasons behind Native American alcohol abuse and poverty. Toni Morrison's Beloved was similar, in that it highlighted a minority — African Americans — and provided new insight into the struggles they experienced. Although not everyone can tolerate these books, reading them helps us grow, overcome barriers, and stop perpetuating injustices.

At the tip of the pyramid are the fats. These delicious indulgences can be hard to avoid. My favorite "fat" novels are the books in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series; the quick, shallow text provides a necessary break after a stressful day. I don't advocate reading mass quantities of these books, but I think they are necessary in balancing one's reading diet.

My English class is reading, Reading Lolita in Tehran. When the government starts to ban certain books, in this novel, I couldn't help but think about how my "literary" diet would be affected if the United States censored what I read. Most of the books I mentioned above could be banned for a number of reasons: abuse of alcohol, polygamy, adultery, cheating, and premarital sex. My argument to those in favor of censoring literature is that they should keep in mind their literary diet. Just because the words on the list above are "immoral," does not make the reader immoral. In fact, I have gained much insight and perspective from "immoral" characters than from the model citizens. In order to be a healthy person, you need to nourish yourself with all the food groups. In order to nourish your mind, you need to read from all the different groups.

Until Next time,



  1. Hi Ali!

    I really think this is an awesome post. You have created a truly original metaphor. I don't know if anyone has ever thought of books as a food pyramid, but the analogy is pretty brilliant, very unforced, understandable. Basically, it works! :)

    It's also interesting how well many of the different books we've read in school clearly fall on the food spectrum. To what food group do you think "Reading Lolita in Tehran" belongs? I'm thinking dairy, maybe?

  2. @jennasacademy: Thanks for your comment! I would say Reading Lolita in Tehran falls either under the "dairy" section or the "protein" section. I would choose dairy because parts of the book are hard to read. However, part of me wants to choose protein because there is a lot of history, anecdotes, metaphors, and messages to take away from this book..."meaningful content that sticks with you."