Where Have all the Readers Gone?

books, glorious booksNo, it’s not a remake of Pete Seeger’s famous 1955 anti-war song. That’s the title of an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail this week, by Peter Denton, lamenting our overall slide into image-based information with the “…intellectual attention span of squirrels…” *

It grabbed my attention from the headline, but I stand at odds over his conclusions and his figures.

Denton worries that people are reading less and sliding towards “personal illiteracy”:

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books any more. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.
Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Now I realize I am not your typical reader, and may be the exception to the rule, but I think my generation is, on average, both very well-read and continues to read a significant amount. My parents were avid readers and they shared their love of books with me. But more than that, for me a good time is an hour or two simply browsing in a bookstore or library. Hell, even wandering through my own personal library is a delight because I always find something to pull off a shelf and look through.

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Who By Fire

I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

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Judas, a Biography

Judas kissLong before Darth Vader, long before Lord Voldemort, long before Stephen Harper, Judas Iscariot reigned as the supreme icon of evil in Western mythology. Judas betrayed God. How much worse can you get?*

For 2,000 years we’ve used the term Judas to refer to anyone who betrayed anything, any cause, any belief, any friendship. Yet, like all the icons of evil that came before, and who have followed, Judas holds a fascination for us that transcends his actions.

Dante consigns him to the ninth circle of hell, one of three traitors forever chewed in the mouths of the three-headed Satan. Yet Brutus, Cassius (the other two sinners in Dante’s story), Benedict Arnold, and Vidkun Quisling never achieved such attention or notoriety. They were all were members of their respective inner circles; all betrayed their friends,their beliefs and their leaders. But they are paltry shadows beside Judas.

Perhaps that’s in part because none of the others are religious symbols, and religion far too often brings out the extreme in people.

Susan Gubar’s 2009 book, Judas, a Biography, which I’ve been reading of late, is a fascinating look at the relationship the West has had with Judas these two millennia, and how he appears in art, music, literature, religion and popular culture. Judas has become a reflection of a lot about ourselves: our fears, our religion, our mythologies, our politics, our behaviour.

Many of us have had the deeply disturbing experience of betrayal in our own lives; someone trusted, a friend or lover, someone we cared deeply about who betrayed us. And when that betrayal is over something crass like money or political favour, it cuts us deeply. We never forget, never forgive our own personal Judas.**

But who was Judas that we still use his name for such acts?

The Gospels are spare in their actual history of Judas, even in his final acts. But a whole body of legend has grown up around the man, his family, his parents, his childhood and, of course, his afterlife. All of which, as Gubar points out, is merely imagined; unsubstantiated by any historical documentation, but become part of the mythology. All of it meant to polish his evil sheen, rather than redeem him.

What’s to redeem, you might ask? Well, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

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Myth and Meaning

From My Buddhist Life on Facebook
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us find within ourselves.

So says Joseph Campbell in an interview with Bill Moyers, 1987, published in the book, The Power of Myth. The book is based on a 1988 PBS documentary about Campbell’s life and studies. You can see the episodes of the show on billmoyers.com and read the transcript. The above quote comes from the book (paperback edn, p.4) which has considerable material not aired in the TV series.

Campbell was the doyen of mythology and comparative religion studies, and author of numerous books on the subjects. He was closely associated with the Jungian school of psychology, too. He died just before the TV series was aired.*

Campbell wrote the now-famous The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949, a book that has hugely influenced writers and screenwriters ever since. It lays out the core ‘hero’s journey’ in all mythology and great literature. Anyone interested in becoming a novelist will have read it by now, or at least read one of the many spin-off titles that explain the progression and cycle Campbell expounds.

In The Power of Myth, Campbell explains why reading mythology – and by extension by reading fiction – we humanize ourselves and connect with our collective past. And how it broadens our understanding of the world and other cultures:

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.

When you consider the parallel rise of the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists – the scripture literalists – you can appreciate Campbell’s advice. Reading only the mythologies of our own religion and culture, we fail to appreciate that they are myths. Without the broader vision, we collectively interpret our myths as facts, rather than allegories and metaphors.

One of the reasons I oppose home schooling as dangerous is that it tends to breed this sort of inward-looking approach; to keep children within the narrow confines of a particular religious interpretation, rather than let them experience the culture and myths of others. It creates irrational beings.

Home-schooled children never get to glimpse the rich possibilities of life, to see the choices and the options available to other children. They never get to realize their own visions, only to fulfill the visions of their parents. They never get to go through what Campbell called the necessary rituals to become members of the tribe and the community. They cannot function rationally in the world without those rituals.

Home schooling instead rolls out easily-indoctrinated child soldiers, sexist and racist, armed for the culture wars against the heathens, the pagans and other inferiors.

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The Secret to Good Writing

The urge to writeSpoiler alert: the secret to writing well is…. (insert drum roll)... writing. Writing a lot. Every day. Every possible minute you can spare. Writing and writing more and then writing even more. But doing so within a pre-specified limit. Oops…

Now we all know that, aside from some local bloggers and EB columnists, most of us get better the more we practice a thing. Writing – aside from the aforementioned inept exceptions – included.

It means not vegging in front of the TV all night, or trolling the Net for images of the Kardashian’s oversized ass, or scrolling through Facebook streams. It means writing. Sitting down and writing instead of doing a lot of less meaningful but pleasantly mind-numbing things.

That, in brief, is the message in a recent article in The Guardian. Author Oliver Burkeman distills this from his reading of How Writers Journey To Comfort And Fluency, an apparently highly over-priced book by Robert Boice (the reviewer didn’t check to see if Boice had re-packaged his book under a less-expensive format). As Burkeman puts it,

The kernel of Boice’s advice, based on writing workshops conducted with struggling academics, isn’t merely old. It’s the oldest in the world: write, every weekday, in brief scheduled sessions, as short as 10 minutes at first, then getting longer. Reading that, I nearly flung my £68 book across the room in impatience. But that wouldn’t surprise Boice. Because impatience, for him, is a huge part of why writing causes so much grief.

As the owner of a healthy library of books on writing and grammar, and as someone who writes every day, as if driven by compulsion, I can attest to his frustration. Far too many of these self-described experts blather on about what is basically a simple process, and make it both more complex and mystical than it really is: write, write some more, then write even more.

So far, Boice has that right. But he strays from the message.

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In Search of Kant’s Categorical Imperative

I have not read Immanuel Kant. Until recently, I did not feel at all apologetic about that statement. But when I watched the video above, I realized how much I was missing. A remarkable thinker, he proves to be, whose thoughts about society, religion, behaviour and politics appear at first glance quite akin to my own cogitations. And in many ways, his conclusions – at least as stated in the video – seem very Buddhist in nature. That “categorical imperative” seems most intriguing, and familiar in many ways, and I want more explanation.

The video, above, was posted on my Facebook timeline via Open Culture with this description:

His primary ethical mandate, which he called the “categorical imperative,” enables us—Alain de Botton tells us in his short School of Life video above—to “shift our perspective, to get us to see our own behavior in less immediately personal terms.” It’s a philosophical version, de Botton says, of the Golden Rule. “Act only according to that maxim,” Kant famously wrote of the imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

I had read about Kant, of course, mostly in works about the development of Western philosophy, but not his own words.

My personal efforts to read the European Enlightenment philosophers to date has been much like wading through treacle. This is why I usually prefer a more modern, conflated synthesis. But that has the problem of distance: I end up reading an interpretation of his words, not the words themselves (which would be a translation, compounding the matter). I need to know more; I need more depth to better understand his ideas and how they relate to my world.

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Read, Re-read, Repeat

Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Our Know-It-Alls

Municipal WorldCollingwood Council obviously knows more than anyone else in municipal governance. More, in fact, than anyone else in the entire country. In fact, they may all be geniuses in local governance issues.

Otherwise, why would council cancel their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the start of their term?

Previous councils subscribed to an issue for each member of council, plus others for administration. While I can’t say everyone read them, the brightest and most dedicated politicians on council read them cover to cover.

Now the whole town gets one issue. ONE for the entire workforce;  for the dozen or so staff AND politicians. That suggests council must be brighter not only than all previous councils, but brighter than all other municipal politicians, advisers, consultants, lawyers, planners and administrators in the whole country, combined.

Since 1891, Municipal World magazine has been Canada’s foremost source of information, best practices, issues, ideas, challenges, policies and opportunities for local governance. Every issue – 12 a year – is packed with important, informative articles and columns. This is considered the “bible” of municipal governance by every other politician across the nation.

But Collingwood council doesn’t read it any more. Clearly our council are all atheists, when it comes to the municipal bible.

I guess it’s because they already know so much they have no need to learn more. Their heads are just bursting with knowledge and just can’t fit any more in. No need for the ideas of others. No need to obey their own Code of Conduct which states councillors are obliged (underlining in the original) to learn more about their roles and responsibilities:

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development…

This council doesn’t need more learning because clearly they all know it all, already.

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In Praise of Audio Books

Audio booksAlthough I had listened to them in the past, I really discovered the joys of audio books several years ago, when my 92-year-old father entered hospital for his final months. As I travelled to and from the city frequently that summer, audio books kept me entertained and my mind from dwelling on the more serious questions of his health and mortality.

Travelling to Toronto to visit my mother in her nursing home, for several years after he passed away, often became a trip with audio books, too. Although I have always been an avid and voracious reader, CD recordings soon found a place in my library alongside the printed books. And, this year, her 95th, as I drove to and from the city, I again found them an equal source of distracting comfort.

Today, as I walk my dogs, I listen to audio books still. Sophie’s 14; old and slow, a little stiff, and she pokes along, stopping frequently to sniff. Listening keeps me from becoming impatient with her glacial pace. Some days I actually appreciate her slowness more because I get to finish a chapter.

Reading and hearing a story create quite different responses in the audience. A well-read story creates a remarkable emotional reaction in the listener in a way that reading the same book doesn’t. That, of course, is why radio shows were so popular before TV pretty much wiped them out. But I grew up in the last period of the era of great radio dramas and remember listening to them with fondness. I still get a kick out of them.

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The Venereal Game

Pun
Forgive the rather idiotic comments on the source page for this humourus image. They only prove that one need not understand something in order to comment online.

The Venereal Game is the provocative subtitle of James Lipton’s 1968 classic, An Exaltation of Larks (reprinted in 1977, and later expanded in the 1993 “ultimate” edition). Venereal, in this sense, comes from venery which in turn comes from the Latin venari, to hunt or pursue, rather from the sexual connotation.*

The collective nouns in much of Lipton’s book come mainly from hunting terms (terms of venery), many originating in the 1486 Book of St Albans and similar contemporary works that Lipton documents. Since that publication, creating collective nouns has become a game for many of a lexicographical bent, hence the venereal game. Even Conan Doyle engaged in it, in chapter XI of his novel, Sir Nigel, which Lipton quotes at length.

Everyone is familiar with several common collective nouns (or nouns of multitude) like these:

  • a school of fish
  • a herd of cattle
  • a swarm of bees
  • a flock of birds

But there are many, many more and yet others have been crafted as recently as the last few years (as in “a deck of Trekkies” coined in 2014). Some are quite ingenious and express a playful approach to the topic.

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The Road Not Taken

The Road Not TakenI was surprised to read a recent piece in the New York Post that suggests a poem I have long loved was actually not what I thought it was about. It was one of those epiphanies that made me reassess my attitude not only towards the poem but towards what I had assumed it meant.

The poem is Robert Frost’s famous piece, The Road Not Taken. You might remember it as “The Road Less Travelled” by which it is sometimes misnamed. It’s a short poem, only 20 lines long, each with a mere nine syllables. Many of us read it in school as part of our English courses. It remains a staple in many anthologies, a century after it Frost wrote it.

According to the writer of the Post piece, Stephen Lynch, it isn’t an “…ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.” Rather, it was written as a sly jest.

This notion comes from David Orr’s recent book of the same name. Its subtitle is “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” and in it Orr takes a fresh look at some of the most popular, modern poetry. I just ordered my copy. It sounds like fascinating reading. Orr writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times Review of Books.

Remarkably, for a book that is essentially about poetry, Orr’s work has generated a lot of discussion online. While it also explores many other areas, such as social issues and pop psychology, it is refreshing to see poetry become a major talking point again. Frost himself wrote that he saw his poems as “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” Perhaps a book about Frost’s poems can do the same.
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Victor Hugo’s Hunchback

HunchbackI have just finished listening to a well-read audio book (in English) of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame, or more properly, Notre Dame de Paris, as the original title was written. I had read the novel several years ago in a more recent Penguin edition, but hearing it on my peregrinations around town with the dogs gave me time to focus on some sections I had glossed over in the written form.

Unlike the abysmal Disney animation of 1996, and unlike all the films and TV series that have been made of the story since the first (Esmeralda, 1905), the novel doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a sad, bitter tale. And Quasimodo, the hunchback, is not the main character. It is only in part his story. The happy, dancing hunchback of Disney’s tale is a cruel abomination of the tragic figure in Hugo’s novel.

Lon Chaney’s 1923 version was the first truly great portrayal of Quasimodo, but the censors of the time, under the Hays Code, forced the writers to recast several characters – Claude Frollo goes from villain to virtuous, and his brother, the drunken scholar Jehan, goes from vain bumbler to villain. The plot is also twisted to include bits Hugo never wrote, including a Pygmalion-like ball where Esmeralda is disguised as a noble lady.

If you don’t mind silent film, you definitely should see it for Chaney’s portrayal, but it isn’t the story Hugo wrote.

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This week’s reading

Going Clear Going Clear by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright is an expose of the Church of Scientology. Fascinating, scary stuff and it makes you want to keep looking back over your shoulder to see if someone is watching you.

A great read, though, and a real eye-opener if you’ve ever wanted to know the inner workings of this group (they hate to be called a cult but it’s hard to think of a better name as you’re reading this). The New York Times called it “essential” reading.

It’s also the inspiration for an HBO documentary of that name, apparently not (yet?) available in Canada. However, you can watch the BBC’s Panorama series on Scientology on YouTube, which, while a bit older, is still worth seeing. This isn’t the only book I’ve tread about Scientology, but it is both the most impressive and the most thorough. My only quibble might be that Wright sometimes seems too accommodating to the church, especially when he recounts the details of their bizarre teachings.

I plan to review this more thoroughly, but I’m only about three-quarters of the way through it now. Another few days and I’ll be done. I found the hardcover as Chapters at a discounted price, since the paperback has since been released.

Morning Noon and NightMorning Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books was another discounted title that caught my eye at Chapters. It’s about how guidance through and explanation for our rites of passage can be found throughout literature. Kirkus Reviews called it a “beautifully, tenderly conceived work.”

It’s part of the ongoing discussion about the value of literature and storytelling to our lives, a subject that has intrigued me ever since I read Joseph Campbell’s works on mythology, back in the 1970s. I have several books on this subject including some recent ones on the value of storytelling in public relations (which I referred to in my own book, Buzz, Brands and Going Viral). This is, however, more personal than the rest.

It is also a guide through some of the writing that has inspired Weinstein himself, and I’m always keen to learn what works have awakened passion or the intellect in others. I delight in discovering an author or a work I didn’t or overlooked because it opens up a path to follow I had not trod before.

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The Paleo-Fantasy

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMOjVYgYaG8]
PaleofantasyPerhaps the best – and certainly the funniest – description of what happens to your life when you pursue pseudoscience fads like the “paleo” diet is here on Popsugar. It’s laugh-aloud funny and too good not to be shared. I loved so many lines it’s hard to pick one or two, but from the description of making inedible “paleo” cookies:

The cookies look exactly the same before they are digested as after. They are eternal and unchanging. As time passes, they don’t decline in quality or taste because they can’t. They’ve already started out at theoretical zero on that scale.
I weep as I take a bite. These cookies will outlive me unless I destroy them.

For a more serious critique of the “paleofantasy” diet, read this piece on Scientific American:

The Paleo diet not only misunderstands how our own species, the organisms inside our bodies and the animals and plants we eat have evolved over the last 10,000 years, it also ignores much of the evidence about our ancestors’ health during their—often brief—individual life spans (even if a minority of our Paleo ancestors made it into their 40s or beyond, many children likely died before age 15).

Not to mention the main issue raised by nutritionists and anthropologists: the “paleo” diet is mainly based on mean, but our ancestors ate a lot – some say mostly – vegetables:

A paper out just this month suggests even Neanderthals–our north country cousins and mates– may have eaten much more plant material than previously suspected. Still, the more macho camps paint a picture of our ancestors as big, bad, hunters, who supplemented meaty diets with the occasional berry “chaser.” Others suggest we spent much of our recent past scavenging what the lions left behind, running in to snag a half-rotten wildebeest leg when the fates allowed. Although “Paleolithic” diets in diet books tend to be very meaty, reasonable minds disagree as to whether ancient, Paleolithic diets actually were. Fortunately, new research suggests a clear answer to the question of what our ancestors ate.

And what about the insects? Paleolithic humans ate them, probably a lot of them:

If you’re really going to follow a paleo diet, you ought to be eating bugs, “lots and lots of bugs,” Daniella Martin argues in “Edible.” The diet, after all, suggests we should eat more like early hunter-gatherers did, and what could be easier to hunt and gather than bugs? (Martin uses the term “bugs” interchangeably with “insects” to refer to “terrestrial invertebrates.”) The creatures are packed with protein and other nutrients. In some non-Western cultures they are considered a staple; in others, a delicacy.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6GimGZz6a8]

Watch the TED Talks, above, for a brilliant explanation why the “paleo” diet fad is just a paleo fantasy.

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