National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

I did something the last couple of weeks that many Americans apparently haven't done since high school.

I read a book. Yes, it's no biggie, I know.

But I was surprised to find that nearly one-fifth of Americans over 16 years old said in a survey taken in December that they hadn't read a single book in the previous 12 months. That 19% figure is the highest since such surveys were first taken in 1978, according to statistics from Pew. In 1978, a Gallup poll asked Americans the same question and found that only 8% of Americans said they had read no books in the previous year.

The same Pew survey celebrated the rise of e-reading, but the sobering truth is Americans don't read as much as they used to. It is semi-tragic, I guess, along with so much else in our world.

A study a few years ago said 58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school, and further stated 42% of college graduates never read another book after college.

 I guess that is what our Econ 101 book did to us, right? I'm crying foul on those stats, even for folks in Rio Linda, that unbooked figure seems way too high.

The book I read recently was The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. The book's "kicker" states "Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table."

If only 20% of Americans didn't read a book in the past year, a minutely smaller percentage of American whites worked in farm fields. Closer to zero percent, I'd say. For that reason, McMillan's tale is worth considering.

McMillan tells the story with facts, but she also bares much of her soul and inner dialog along the journey's path.

In her introductory chapter, she writes of her experience living on a shoestring budget in New York City:

"All of this - the chore of finding food, the lack of time to do anything with it when we did, the indifference to our meals - was familiar. I grew up in a small town outside Flint. My dad sold lawn equipment for a living. My mom was gravely ill for nearly a decade. Most of my family's money went to medical bills, and I grew up eating the kind of meals you'd expect from an effectively single working dad."


While toiling in California grape and garlic fields, McMillan wonders about why farmers don't invest in mechanization to reduce their reliance on migrant labor.

She writes:

"I know that mechanizing the fields comes with great, perhaps untenable risks: greater reliance on fossil fuels,  the compacting of soil, the loss of jobs. But at $26 a day, I can't help but think, Go ahead, mechanize my damn job, because it's not just hard, but I suspect it will become boring, too, as a woman with education talking: Even if I'm in the fields for now, I know I can go elsewhere."

TK: Of course, in the end,  some of McMillan's story is somewhat predictable, a less-than-flattering look at the seamy underbelly of getting food from farm to table. There are many hardships to be endured, as you would expect might befall a woman seeking out the very bottom rung of opportunity.

There are bogus and nonexistent food safety training sessions, there are incompetent bosses, there are starvation wages.

Her personal narrative prevents the book from descending to a mere documenting of social injustices. Her story of her last night at Applebee's is a tale few would put out for public consumption.

When it is all said and done - shorts stints of employment in the farm fields, at Walmart and at Applebee's - what is the "takeaway" message?

Importantly, there is one. And whether Rush or the food industry agrees with her or not, McMillan's voice is worth considering. And her book is worth the read, especially for those in Rio Linda.