Ready for radical conflations?

Who knows? The tenets of the New Journalism associated with Tom Wolfe and others may have been a downstream expression of what had been going on in quantum theory. Certainly the powerful revelation of the observer effect, which demonstrates that the observer can’t help but change the thing observed, resonates in the New Journalism’s defiance of the traditional edict for news writers: “There is no you.”  To which a new journalist might have responded, then there is no story.

From the New Journalism descends an increasingly popular form of non-fiction writing in which all is fair game: literary techniques applied to non-fiction subjects, unfiltered autobiography intertwined with objective research and reporting, and radical conflations of the traditional expository modes — evocative and poetic descriptive writing and narrative woven in a tapestry with argument, polemics, and all kinds of critical analysis.

One of the first examples of this super-enriched texture can be found in the bestselling natural histories of the writer Diane Ackerman. Further downstream, we now seem to be in a flowering renaissance of mixed-mode non-fiction, and the deserving king of the cats is the former “food writer” Michael Pollan, whose books combine hard science, cultural history, autobiography, and a kind self-as-subject investigative writing similar to Barbara Ehrenreich’s big success, Nickel and Dimed.


And there are a million great young writers I haven’t heard of. This is of course the very same multi-strand texture that typifies NPR reporting these days and about half of all podcasts. But Pollan is the best, the best at the process and — by quite a distance — the best at the prose.

How to Change Your Mind, which I reviewed in these pages, combined a thorough history of psychedelics research in the United States with a deep swing into mycology and other plant sciences and another strand of in-gazing reporting from Pollan’s own first-hand studies. Most people reported that the book made them want to try acid, or try it again.

Now Pollan scores with a new multimode book about caffeine, the fuel of the West. Without even reading the abstract, I know that the book would make me want to quit caffeine. I will not, presently, be reading Michael Pollan’s Caffeine.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.