Wednesday, July 27, 2005

BOOKS: Could've been better

How many times, after finishing a book or walking out of a movie or the theatre, have you said to yourself: "It could've been better"? It's a statement I don't like to make because it implies some greater knowledge over a work than I have within me. It's an attempt to put myself somewhere above the author or director or actor, and snidely remark on choices that I wouldn't have made, or at least don't think I would have made if I had actually been talented and knowledgable enough to write the book, direct the movie, or star in the play.

With that disclaimer, however, I have to say that Eric Schlosser's book, Reefer Madness, the follow-up to his highly acclaimed (and wonderfully written) Fast Food Nation, certainly could have been better.

In Reefer Madness, Schlosser attempts to dissect several niches within America's underground economy (or black market). He looks at three such areas: marijuana, illegal immigration, and pornography. With the exception of much of his work on illegal immigration, Schlosser fails to draw these into his central premise.

That certainly isn't to say the book is uninteresting or uninformed. On the contrary, the book is well-researched and provides fantastic insight into these three areas. In making connections to the underground economy, however, Schlosser fails to prove his point.

The book reads like three separate and distinct works. The first part, on marijuana, its domestic production, its widespread use among Americans, and its distinction as a favored boogeyman for the political right (and occassionally for the moderate left), is essentially a dissection of this country's marijuana laws and the overzealous use of the criminal justice system in "combating" pot growers, distributors, and smokers. The second part, on illegal immigration, focuses on migrant farmworkers in California and our nation's longtime love affair with importing cheap labor while demonizing those who provide that cheap labor. The final part, on pornography, is basically a history lesson on the porn industry, how it came into being, and how it has now become part of popular culture.

Perhaps, just perhaps, these three separate parts could have gone together in a much longer book that was much more in-depth about the underground economy. Unfortunately, in less than 300 pages, there's simply no room to run a single, much less several threads, through each of these to connect them. Nor did Schlosser really give any effort to doing so. He makes it clear in the introduction that these are three long essays based on different work he's done for The Atlantic Monthly. The problem is he just scratches the surface on three very interesting topics and researches and reveals enough to make it interesting, and then stops.

Fast Food Nation succeeded because it was a tightly drawn book with a strong central premise. Working from that theme, Schlosser offered case studies, as well as relevant facts and figures that worked to truly engage and inform the reader. Reefer Madness feels like an attempt to package three Fast Food Nations into one book and somehow expect them to fit together.

Sorry, but it could've been better.

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