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University of Wisconsin chooses Michael Pollan's Eater's Manifesto for its Go Big Read book

Go Big Read
"You are what you read."

Following the model set by many community libraries, UW–Madison has begun an initiative (intended to become annual) of choosing a book for the community – both the university and the broader “community” that extends beyond the borders of the campus – to read and discuss. The chosen book: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.

In Defense of Food book cover
 Michael Pollan's book

The initiative by the Big Red university is appropriately entitled “Go Big Read.” But is Pollan’s food manifesto an odd choice for a community read? Not according to University Chancellor Biddy Martin. In a guest column in the September 12, 2009 Wisconsin State Journal, Chancellor Martin said, “This book was chosen because it raises issues of interest to faculty, staff, students and community members from a variety of backgrounds. The issues are of particular importance in Wisconsin, where the economic impact of agriculture is almost $60 billion a year.”

There are plans for author Pollan to visit the UW campus September 24 for a lecture at the Kohl Center, to be followed by a panel discussion with the author the next day. Copies of Pollan’s book were distributed to UW freshmen. Presumably other students will purchase or borrow copies.

Go Big Read exemplifies Wisconsin Idea

In keeping with “The Wisconsin Idea,” which holds that the boundaries of the University should extend at least as far as the boundaries of the state when it comes to the influence of education, Go Big Read is reaching out to UW alumni and to the Madison community at large. A “food summit” to happen in the spring is intended to include the entire community.

Go Big Read invites debate, not afraid of controversy

Pollan’s book has been controversial, as has the author himself. Pollan is known for espousing perspectives on a safe, healthy food supply, for his criticism of the “Western diet” and of food production methods and food science. However, the UW has not been an institution to shy away from controversy. In fact, Chancellor Martin seems to welcome and to relish the potential debate that will arise. “I believe promoting rigorous discussion of ideas, including those that are controversial, is one of the a university’s particular gifts to the larger society,” Martin said in her column. Martin also feels the debate is especially apropos for an agriculturally-based state and for this public research university that has been deeply involved in agricultural issues and research since its founding in 1848.

While Martin does not expect any kind of consensus on the issues addressed by Pollan in his book as a result of the Go Big Read experience, she says she hopes the community “will come away with a greater understanding of the complex issues involved in the production, distribution and impact of our food supply; the relationship between the food we eat and our health; and the relationship between the production of our food and a sustainable earth.”

For more info: Check out the Go Big Read website.