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darkskywatcher

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Beef {Overdue} [Jul. 31st, 2010|02:26 pm]
darkskywatcher
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Hmm, where to begin with this one? How about "don't buy it"?

Reason #1 is the book's length(though, given the later points, this is also a point in favor). It's little more than 200 pages, and at that length the authors would need to do a masterful job of condensing material in order to cover the history of an animal that has been domesticated for about 7000 years. They don't manage that, and there are a lot of places where I feel like either they're glossing over too much, I'm missing something, or they are citing something that actually explains what they're trying to say.

The book also wastes a lot of pages. Some of that is on recipes, which contribute almost nothing to the narrative and also give me the sense that the authors just copied the idea from somebody else writing in the same genre (Mark Kurlansky, perhaps?). Another big waste is on the Masai, who repeatedly pop up in the narrative without the authors bothering to explain why they're important. I assume it's because they are a surviving cattle culture, but the authors never make the case that they are in any way representative of anyone but themselves. And that doesn't make the discussion about them terribly interesting.

Another problem for the authors comes towards the end of the book, where they try to make the case that the modern, especially American beef and dairy industries(especially beef) are terribly flawed and in dire need of refor. The problem is that Michael Pollan already did that, had a more intensive case study, and is a better writer to boot(and they don't cite him, so either they're borderline plagiarists or didn't do enough reading while they were gathering their materials).

Really, the entire book feels like a couple of guys got together, decided they wanted to do a specific resource history since those seemed to be popular, got a contract, and then got halfway through and realized they didn't really know how to do this kind of writing, and didn't have a beefy enough subject matter (sorry) for a grand history, and so they panicked and just tried to follow sub genre conventions with the hopes that they could still wind up with a short volume they could sell. Well, they did, but only just.

And in the end, they didn't convince me of the most basic point of their book, which is that cattle are a special part of human history. Sure, they mattered in various times and places, they do show up in human art/cultural relics, but the functions they provide could almost always have been provided by other animals humans also domesticated, especially horses (or some combination of animals). That takes a special kind of failing, where the barnyard winds up looking more important than it's ostensible star. {Edit:} What's even worse is that another author actually makes the point, albeit later(I think): if you remember back to my review of Jared Diamond's Collapse, he talks about the Greenland Norse, who were a people that refused to give up their cattle and adapt to conditions in which cattle could not survive. But they held on, despite the fact that it eventually led them to starvation. That is a powerful symbol of the human connection to cattle, and the place they sometimes hold in our lives and societies.
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