Sweet!: The History of a Book

Five years ago, more or less today, I was engaged in writing a book. What started out as a book about home food production, took a sharp turn and became “Sweet!: The History of a Taste”. It was some 270 pages long, as I recall. The book’s premise was that, as a species, we’re obsessed with sweetness. We have done, and continue to do, crazy things (e.g., The Big Gulp) in a futile effort to quench our desire for this taste.

My book traced our relationship with sweetness from the earliest records of man harvesting honey to today’s incredibly complex (and crooked) political machinations that at once attempt to placate the corporate interests of Big Sugar while simultaneously trying to contain the massive health ramifications of selling out our citizens. It covered the slave trade, the theft of Hawaii, and the remarkable story of why stevia can be sold as a dietary supplement but not a sweetener. The more I looked into the subject, the more fascinated I became.

At the same time, I was struggling with the form that the book had taken. As my first full-length project, it flopped from voice to voice, the tone wavered from outrage to objective inquiry to comedy, and my own perspective dramatically changed from the time I’d written the first chapters. I’d started trying to prove that Americans are obese because we just love sweet stuff. I’d learned that we are, indeed, victims of a larger game that involves governmental and corporate complicity in giving us what we want and not what we need.

This entry from my old blog– courtesy the Way Back Machine– sums up my attitude at the time:

A Note From My Dad

Dear Readers,

Please excuse Rian for absence from his blog for these past two weeks. He has been very busy writing and deleting most of his so-called “book”. It has been much more difficult than he imagined, and that has driven him to remarkable heights of procrastination and depths of depression.

He has also had a cold for the last few days. It has made him intolerably cranky and not at all creative.

He promises to stop being such a whiner and get back to producing his book so that he can get it out of his system and start looking for a real job.

Rian’s Dad’s Forged Signature

Five years ago, I was not comfortable putting my personal data out there in the cloud, and it wasn’t for privacy reasons. I had no idea if any of the existing services would disappear without warning, and internet access was still relatively spotty. No, I decided that I’d build use my own hard disk back-up system to store my research and writing when I backed it up off my writing computer. I had, at most, printed just a few pages out of curiosity about the formatting.

Then lightning struck. Literally.

One night, during a rain storm, a bolt of lightning hit close enough to my home that it blew a major power surge into the house. I came into my office, and my computer just wouldn’t boot. Just a blinky cursor on the screen. I was a little upset because I knew that I hadn’t been religious about backing up my data as often as I should. It was pretty likely that I’d lost at least a couple of days of work, and at this point, I was already struggling to stay engaged with the project because of my feelings about it and a host of personal issues coming to a head at that time.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about reproducing my work. The surge had, in fact, taken out a few things in the house– a stereo, an electronic clock, my computer, and… my backup drive. After hours of sweaty forensics, attaching drives to other machines, installing special software to recover the data, and digging through other places where I might have kept a copy, I realized that my book was gone.

Most people get a really sad, shocked look on their face when I tell that story. It’s a little like telling someone that you got a divorce. “Oh my god… that’s horrible!” They look as though they’re concerned I’m going to start crying at the end of the story because everyone’s heard that writing a book is like giving birth. Losing this book must have been like losing a child.

Not at all. First, I’m one of those annoying people who says “It is what it is” a lot. Because it is. Sure, there’s room for mourning a loss, dealing with a sudden, discontinuous change in expectations, but nothing any of us can do changes how things are right now. The book was gone. The only question was what was I going to do about it.

Second, I love my children. They are the most important, perfect things in my life. My book was so-so, even by my own estimation. I would guess that a skilled reader would think this was less my literary child than a shoddily-stuffed, legless scarecrow with a kid’s face drawn on it in magic marker.

So, for five years, I did nothing about it. Well, I told this story now and then, but I didn’t rewrite the book. I’m still fascinated with the subject, though. As someone who’s wrestled with addictions, including to sugar, my whole life, I get that it’s more complicated than a simple choice between a six-pack of soda and six-pack abs. We’d all take the abs if it were that easy.

But we don’t. I don’t. I drink juice that I know is no better than soda in terms of sugar. Right now, I have a couple of kinds of cookies in the pantry. I convince myself that a chocolate protein bar isn’t a protein-enhanced candy bar when I’m hungry at work. We are definitely complicit in this problem, but it’s not only us as individuals. There is a vast implicit conspiracy, there really is no other word, between government and corporate interests that put the farmer, the school, and the individual into a situation in which only people of particularly strong willpower grow diverse crops, serve nutritious lunches, and make it out of the store without sweeteners added to almost every packaged good in their basket.

So, I’m going to write the book again. I’m going to start from scratch and put my notes on a blog that I’ll set up for that purpose. I may not finish it, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to take some time off of my normal technical job to work on the project. I feel like it’s time to give it another whack.

So, stay tuned. I’ll put up a link when I get started.


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