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Scott Lax Blog

How Writers Read

Finn in late summer
Like most readers, I go through times when I don't read as much as usual. The past seven and a half months -- the best of my life, with the arrival of my son, Finn -- have been such a time. Too tired; too busy. There's no need for any writer to apologize for not writing or reading more. It happens.

And then I got back into it. I'm starting slowly, with not much more time, but maybe a bit more intellectual energy. I just read "Dog Story, a Personal History," by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker; and am reading Ben Marcus's short story, "What Have You Done?" as well as a novel by one of my favorite writers of light fiction. It's not genre fiction, but it's not exactly Dickens or Kundera. (More on that later.)

If you've gotten away from reading -- and like most of you, I never completely get away from it -- all you have to do to get back in it is open a magazine or book or turn on your iPad or Kindle. (I still like paper, but we'll see.)

Speaking of seeing things, here's Finn about a week ago. He loves nature. And books. And climbing things. And bouncing. And drumming. And singing. And laughing. And...you get the idea. Read More 

How Reading Can Make You Thinner and Healthier: Or, The Emperor's New Clothes are Filled with Fat, Salt and Sugar

The blogosphere, like the country, is saturated with fat. And there’s an odd paradox happening, as well. It goes something like this:

Some sophisticated writers, bloggers, hipsters, etc., are doing two conflicting things: they’re bemoaning (correctly) the widening girth of a McDonald's culture, they’re watching, and are horrified by (understandably), “Food Inc.,” and they’re ripping on (also correctly) processed foods. At the same time, though, they’re promoting and extolling the virtues of excessive salt, refined sugars, and lots and lots of fat by turning the restaurant scene into a new kind of rock show, with chefs as rock stars. At its worst, it’s a kind of in-your-face-I’ll-eat-what-I-want mentality, a rebelliousness against a baby boomer movement that unfortunately became known as “health food.” Those words, “health food,” have become the disco balls of the culinary world. So let’s banish them. Goodbye “health food,” and hello “good food.”

Months ago, because of the ridiculous fetishizing of bacon, of all things, and the retro-swooning over sugar bombs like cupcakes, I made a joke on this blog about a bacon-wrapped cupcake, which, at the time, didn’t exist. Little did I know that one of the rages in Cleveland, and I suppose, elsewhere, would become…a bacon milkshake.

This monstrosity was created by an old friendly acquaintance of mine. He’s a great guy, and recognized as one of America’s finest and most successful chefs. But, I mean… a bacon milkshake? Organic or not, it’s an arterial nightmare.

And that’s one, small example. I don’t want to take on other friends who write about the wonders of dining out and eating large, because dining out is one of life’s nice things, and there are wonderful restaurants, and Cleveland is becoming a respected food town. But I do want to make a counter-point to certain trends.

Food is out of control in much of America, partly because people simply don’t understand what’s happening to their bodies after food enters their mouths. I’m one who responds to words, but the 2006 book, YOU: ON A DIET, by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., is a book I resisted until this year. I’m terribly glad I bought it and read it, though.

As corny as the writing is, and as obvious as much of it may be to many of you, it’s nonetheless a very important book. Because for someone like me, someone who, out of stress or hurry or stupidity, packed on pounds now and again, and here and there over the decades – someone like me needed to read about what that food actually does to the human system…scientifically. It’s not written pseudo-scientifically or faddishly. It’s science. It’s about molecules, and enzymes, and our hearts and our livers and our arteries and our brains and things we don’t really want to think about when it comes to food.

I already know what bacon and milkshakes (much less bacon milkshakes) do to taste buds. They excite them; they gratify them, and our brains. Of course they do: because our systems have a built-in craving for salt and sugar and fat – these are the things we need to live, and our systems were adapted to store them as a defense against famine. But we’re not in a famine in the U.S. (Unfortunately, too many places in the world can't say that.) So too much of them – and a little goes a long, long way – can be deadly.

Yet when we get too much of these foods our bodies go into overdrive, and desperately try to process this excess. Enter metabolic syndrome. Which kills as surely as smoking, and sometimes more quickly.

I’m glad people are interested in cooking. I’m grateful to writers like my old friend Michael Ruhlman, who has inspired so many to cook at home. He, too, has done a service to eaters and readers.

But readers and eaters (I assume we're all both) should understand that moderation matters, and that we need to eat plants, and fruits, and healthy fats, like nuts and fish, and whole grains – all in larger quantities, and food that’s hard on our systems in much smaller quantities. Or no quantities.

When I started reading YOU: ON A DIET, my attitude toward food began to become more mindful – and more realistic. I’m dropping fat easily (and walking a lot, and working out, so as not to lose muscle), and plan on dropping a good deal more. (Including where you can't see it -- the subcutaneous kind). There’s nothing romantic about over-indulging. I see it everywhere; and I’ve been part of it. I want to be part of the solution now, not the problem. For me, reading was a key ingredient to nudging and changing my thinking: it helped me to understand the science behind food and what it does to us. I know…we all know these things already. But, for me, to read it…it helped. It made sense.

If you allow your taste buds to settle down and take a break from chemicals and refined sugar and loads of fat and salt, you might be surprised at how delicious certain foods can taste. Nuts, fruit, whole grains and vegetables, for example. Going a while without refined sugar or fat and salt bombs (hot dogs, bacon, cupcakes) turns an apple into the sweetest treat you can imagine, and a handful of nuts into a true pleasure.

As for the writing in YOU: ON A DIET…It’s not great literature. But that’s okay; it’s accessible to the layperson, but most important, for someone like me, the authors really explain how important, how medicinal, how vital healthy food is – and how damaging overly fatty, salty, sugary food can be. They’ve done a great service to those who read it. We need to reverse this societal trend. I’m reversing my own. No self-righteousness here: I’m in the same boat as many of you.

Now back to reading good fiction and literary nonfiction. And watching one of my new favorite shows with Lydia: “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” on ABC.

And when I get hungry while watching it, I reach for an apple or some almonds. Real food – one ingredient each- can taste great. Talk about your comfort food. Have you tried a single, fresh, juicy pear lately? Sometimes I stick I walnut or almond in each slice. It’s not boring – it’s delicious. Honest. I’ll take that over a bacon milkshake any day, and I can almost hear my arteries sigh in relief.

I don’t mean to offend my old compadres; I’m sure you’ll still have lines down the block at your restaurants. I’m likely yelling into the wind, but some Cleveland blogger has to say it: The emperor has no clothes; or rather, the emperor’s clothes are coated in fat, salt and sugar.

Have an apple, take a walk, read about how your body and food work together, and happy writing, happy eating, and happy health to you and yours.  Read More 

Going Long

I had a nice talk with a newspaper editor today. Times are very tough for newspapers, as everybody knows. I think this doesn't bode well: even though so much content is free, I am suspect that many people are reading in-depth articles on their computers. I've found myself carting around The New Yorker and reading longer, in depth articles. It keeps my brain operating half-way decently.

You simply can't get that kind of information from a two hundred word Web piece. Most of them are toss-offs, full of easily digestible information.

The Internet is invaluable; I know that. But we are losing the in-depth, long form; we are losing serious investigative journalism. Will young people want to read serious journalism, having been raised on Twitter and snark? Maybe. In many ways, kids seem smarter than ever. Still, there needs to be some kind of happy medium.

I only hope that enough newspapers, magazines and book publishing companies survive to keep excellence alive. Otherwise, society will get stupider. (Can I say that more diplomatically? Maybe. But why?)

If you haven't read a long form lately, try it. A long piece in The New Yorker, or any magazine of that sort, will do. Or a book. It's amazing how much intellectual yardage you can gain by stopping the dink and dunk passes and going long.  Read More 

Reading to Become Better Writers

You've heard it before, I know: but for writers, reading is so important. It exercises your literary brain cells. It gives you ideas. It expands your world far beyond your house and garden, place of work, and the places you go, from the grocery store to the park. I'm reading - with great fascination - Ian Frazier's New Yorker account of traveling through Siberia. I'm seeing Siberia through his eyes, and learning a lot about a mysterious part of the world, one that covers more land than the U.S. and Europe combined.

For writers: I suggest you try to sink your mind into substantial works, be they fiction, nonfiction, long essays, features, short stories or novels. Think about how the author has worked to put so many facts and impressions and narrative story lines together. Read actively (not stressfully); ask yourself how he or she was able to weave together such a magnificent story - or, if you don't like what you read, why that doesn't work for you, and what it lacks. That alone can help you get into the rhythm of writing longer pieces, and doing so with the same kind of satisfaction you get (I hope) from reading such pieces.  Read More