I find selecting my favorite book for a year to always be a challenge. Largely because I read different genres and I read each for a different purpose. Ultimately I have to make a final decision and this year I have based my decision on the following criteria:
First, I wanted to select a book that was neither recommended to me nor one that was on the popular circuit. This may disqualify some very fine books, and clearly it does, however those books will find homes on other people’s lists. Just not mine.
Second, I wanted a book that surprised me, meaning it exceeded both my intellectual expectations and my emotional expectations. A book that does not touch the soul and alter a person’s emotional if not physical characteristics should not be a finalist. It takes more the exceptional prose, strong narration, and innovation to be a best book of the year (IMHO).
Third, I wanted to select a book that I bragged about as being worthy, even if no one else was interested beyond the “yawn” of another book story I would talk about
And finally, I would only select a book that I continue to think about months after reading it.
These are my criteria and may not be yours (nor should they be – as that would make your list mine and that would be redundant and probably boring, but I digress).
So, without further pain and suffering (on your part, not mine), my favorite book for 2008 is: Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by: Dan Koeppel (available at Amazon, Borders, B&N, and most probably your personal bookstore).
This is clearly the story of the banana and its historical and current impact in our lives. For instance, the banana is most probably the first fruit you ever ate and will most likely be the last fruit you ever eat. That the Apple referenced in the Garden of Eden story was most likely a banana. That the first banana’s rushed up the eastern seaboard from Jamaica to Boston around 1870 or so required peeling before bringing to market (they were wrapped in tin foil) as to help the Victorian ladies avoid embarrassment from viewing the banana’s, well…..you know….phallic nature of its natural shape. What really surprised me was that those early bananas sold for like $2 each (in 1870 that was probably like 2 weeks rent – I think Baker would agree that the subjective theory of value was alive and well in 1870 Boston, at least when it came to fruit).
I also learned more about the atrocities the U.S. based banana companies (ultimately known as Dole and Chiquita) were responsible for throughout Latin America and why Central America was referred to as Banana Republics. Other gems in this well written story (I must admit the first 60 pages didn’t grab me, but that was its only major flaw, and ultimately the story was well written and enjoyable to read) included the struggle to find a successor for today’s common marketplace banana (the Cavendish) because it will soon die out as a weakness in the banana DNA chain is that it is essentially sexless as each banana plant is an exact clone of the one that it sprong from and once disease enters a banana field, the entire field is ruined. Losing the Cavendish would be a political and nutritional disaster and more people would die from starvation than I would have ever imagined before reading this book. And something that doesn’t leave my mind whenever I read about or watch a program about worldwide starvation.
Additionally, I learned that for most of the world that grows bananas (and the locations might surprise (from Pakistan to the Philippines, from India to Israel, and beyond) bananas are generally eaten within 2 kilometers of their harvest. That the U.N. and other relief agencies would better serve the hungry by providing banana plants than say rice or wheat as the local populations know how to grow, cook, eat, and use bananas while wheat, rice, and corn are generally not supported by the local environment, hence making the starving populations more dependent on outside help then self supporting. I enjoyed the political history of the banana as told by Koeppel as it reinforced the value of a fruit that I had essentially ignored while consuming for nearly 50 years.
Bananas are regional and their flavors are regional as well. I never noticed them while shopping. But I have ventured out and tried bananas from around the world (a luxury of shopping a Whole Paycheck and traveling. So, beyond an enjoyable and engaging read, I have ventured out and improved my understanding of food.
I also learned a great deal about the early British explorers who spent their years cataloguing and sending back to Royal England plants and notes about the fruits and plants that they found while tripping around on Clipper Ships. We owe a great deal to their work and diligence. Something my high school history teachers forgot to explain. Maybe they should trash their committee approved misinformation texts they claim are history books and use books like this instead. The students would learn a great deal more and they would better understand the complexities of life (I do live in a fantasy world).
I mentioned above the issue of the upcoming death of the Cavendish. The banana industry has spent the last 30+ years trying to find a replacement. Something that is difficult to do from a plant biology perspective as bananas are essentially seedless and they need to find/create/germinate/husbandry one that can withstand modern production, are seedless, have great taste, are resistant to nasty diseases, can handle shipping, and look like bananas. Their task is great, difficult, and extremely important.
Ultimately, many books I read in 2008 were memorable, well written, and continue to be resident in my DNA. In the end, a book about the banana won out.
Oh, and by the way, I simply saw its cover at my local B&N on a sunny Sunday and picked it up. Absent that trip to that bookstore, I may never had ventured out and read a great book, one that changed the way I think.
When was the last time you just walked through the bookstore, stopping to read the new titles (and some of the old ones) and venture out to read something not on a “must read” or “currently cool” list?
Think about it.
The best to each of you as we move from one year to the next. As my favorite professor used to say, “Time is or Time is ising” it is your time choose wisely, reach out and enjoy.
December 31, 2008