Thursday, October 9, 2008

Groggy!

My first assignment of the quarter is due today, so naturally I was up late completing it. I pride myself on being able to write a paper in under 45 minutes. In high school I could actually get it down to 15 for a 3-5 page paper, and under an hour for a 10-page. This would have stood true last night, had I not forgotten what a tedious pain in the arse it is to format academic papers! Having spent the last two months out of school (a long time for someone who's been going to school non-stop since April of 2007), and not having had a single writing-intensive class for two quarters, I was already aware of the sluggishness of my mind. Within a few days it started to clear up and by the beginning of this week I was back in top form.

I was very excited to write a book review for my History of the Tropics class, as during the discussion we had of the book I managed to get out several unique points, which seemed to impress my professor (which is good, since he's so hot). However, when I sat down to write the paper I got completely confused. I couldn't even remember how to format my title page! What should have taken me no more than 20 minutes to write from scratch ended up taking me 4+ hours, almost all of which was spent on formatting. I was up much later last night than I normally am, and had to get up early this morning to review my work.

It wasn't all bad, of course. While I would have benefited from starting the paper earlier (entirely my own fault, though I obviously didn't think I would need more than an hour), it's still one of my better-written reviews, and definitely my most scathing. So that I can spend my morning getting ready instead of fiddling with my perfectly adequate assignments, I'm going to post the review for your readin' pleasure. Or displeasure. I'm not one to judge my own work.


The excruciating tedium that was reading Sidney Mintz's “measured, intelligent, ambitious book” (Elliot) is my greatest literary disappointment since Süskind's Das Parfum. As with the latter, Sweetness excelled with thought-provoking, stimulating content but suffered from the inefficient disarray of its execution. By page six of the text I was being forced to regularly re-read paragraphs. By page 45, during a particularly lengthy digression into tea, I was reduced to truly eccentric fits which found me convincing myself (aloud) not to violently fling the text against the nearest wall. At that point I concluded the title of the work should be Sweetness and Power: Dizzying Ruminations and Conspicuously Partial Ramblings by Sydney W. Mintz. Being as much deceived by the glowing reviews of Sweetness and his apparent Eminence the Author Mintz (as cited on the front and back covers, the first leaf, and the acknowledgments page) as I was by the title of the book itself, I had to set aside my severe irritation with Mintz's complete inability to write a proper academic paragraph (let alone think-piece) and force myself to soldier on.
The title of this piece is misleading and contradictory. Throughout the book he emphasizes the difference between sweetness (such as that found in honey and in fruit) and sugar (cane, beat, etc.). The book argues regularly that the place of sugar in modern history is one of dominance. Mintz disproves this by essentially ending his piece with data showing that high-fructose corn syrup is replacing cane sugar in the majority of edible products. Humans have seemingly always liked sweetness (in any form), but while sugar benefited from the human desire to add sweetness to their diets, it is soon to suffer from the affects of improved sugar-substitute technology in the forms of saccharine and corn syrup.
If I were to hand in a paper as poorly organized, contradictory, and as lacking in direction as was Sweetness and Power, I would – at best – receive the minimum passing grade. Mintz has no thesis. He has several. They are all varying in their contrariness and can be found on pages 18, 129, 181, and 207, to name a few. These theses rage from sugar being the “total diet of the poor” (Mintz 129, Burnett 62) which stemmed from the “deep alterations in the lives of working people” (Mintz 181), and which was, apparently, simultaneously both a rarity (Mintz 148) and a fairly common substance (Mintz, Introduction xxv) by the middle of the 17th century in England. The content is original and profound, but the arguments, if they can be referred to as such, too often negate each other, and by the end of the book any arguments he made in favor of his theses have been completely erased by statements made in opposition to them. Appallingly boring and distractingly contrary, if Mintz's work is representative of Ivy League standards then I am greatly comforted by my decision to remain in the public education system.
The organization of this book was the worst I've ever seen. Approximately 212 pages were divided into five chapters. This in and of itself would not present a problem if the content within each chapter was better organized. Had he followed a pattern within each chapter, as opposed to stating one idea, digressing for several dozen pages, then returning to the idea much later, this book would be far easier to follow. Aside from a serious compulsion for digression (for example, pages 108 – 121 are dedicated to a full-on ramble about tea), Mintz also overuses quotes. Pages 74 – 150 (Chapter 3: Consumption) feature 41 quotes in lengths ranging from a few prose (“And yf there shulde excepte by only thynge, It were but sugre, trust to my syninge” (Mintz 82, Salzman 461)) to nearly an entire page of condensed text (page 104 features a 30-line example of a “Galenical” quote, which carries on for an extra line and a eighth onto the next page).
Sweetness also does not include a single graph, despite the overwhelming amount of data Mintz produces. Quoting Brian Murphy, “The harvest of the years 1481-82, 1502, 1520-1521, 1526-29, 1531-32, 1535, 1545, 1549-51, 1555-56, 1562, 1573, 1585-86, 1594-97, 1609, 1612-13, 1621-22, 1630, and 1637” (Mintz 76, Murphy 183) were years of poor agricultural production. That's 18 different sets of harvest years. Are readers expected to memorize this data? That would be a perfectly feasible expectation if page 76 was the only page in the text to include such a list, but it isn't. Page78 continues this discussion with another list of six sets of years, and the entire book features datasets such as these.
Mintz makes regular discussion of sweet-preference as being (socially) divided between the sexes, but makes no mention of, or argument for, the unquestionably large role sweetness (in its physical, olfactory, and metaphorical forms) plays in sexuality. The closest he gets is by way of sexism, referring to Dr. Frederick Slare's mention of sugar making “ladies too fat” (Mintz 106). (Mintz makes light of this reference by failing to discuss it further, and by failing to make any mention of the receding hairlines, ale-guts, and inappropriately displayed body hair of the aging male sex.) He also later adds a brief allusion to a veritable lap dance (Mintz 203) in connection with the consumption of sugar, but these examples are as far as he gets in discussing the impact sweetness had on sexuality.
Mintz never discusses the olfactory power of sweetness. You can experience “sweetness” without ever tasting it. Sweet smells are found in everything from cosmetics (lip gloss, shampoo, hair spray, lotion) to air fresheners. Bath and Body Works' “Warm Vanilla Sugar” is one of the company's most popular fragrances and can be found at any of their stores in multiple media. That aromatic sweetness is powerful is not a new concept; bakeries have benefited from this built-in marketing device for centuries. Most recently, however, it has become one of the most commonly promoted marketing tools for real-estate. In order to make your house seem more home-like, realtors, for sale by owner organizations, and even home-buying magazines recommend baking cookies while potential buyers take their walk-through. The same usage applies to chain hotels, many of which serve fresh-baked cookies. It's not enough to simply produce a warm food – it is a sweet food, and the smell of the sweet food becomes part of the experience.
Also absent is a more detailed discussion of religion. He makes brief reference to Thomas Aquinas who rationalizes the consumption of sugar during religious fasts by categorizing it as a medicine, and therefore not a food (Mintz 99; Lippmann 368). He thoroughly discusses the industrial revolution and capitalism (did sugar create both, or was it the reverse?), yet he says little about the role religion (and by religion I mean The Church of England) played in either the promotion or intervention of the spread of sugar. Was there opposition to its consumption along the lines of moderation and avoiding gluttony? Was its consumption encouraged on the basis of its medical usefulness, or on the potential for greater power that the church might gain by including itself amongst the lengthy list of those involved in the production and sale of sugar? From the extent of Sweetness I could digest, it seems to me that the absence of any such discussion is a vital misstep.
Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is a poorly organized, poorly executed amalgamation of the author's ruminations about sugar, sweetness, tea, and slavery. Mintz utilized a comprehensive list of sources, (he has a 12-page bibliography and 32 pages of Notes), and used his own experiences as well. He early tells readers of his experiences “[w]orking in Caribbean societies”(Mintz Introduction xvi), which he used to write this book. In his attempt to impress the world with his conclusions, however, Mintz failed to package his research in an orderly fashion. With a detailed revision and some guidance as to poignancy, Sweetness would undoubtedly be a more popular book, or at least a more easily read book. That having been said, what Mintz does provide is profound, however confusing it might be, and while the book is technically the worst I've ever read, the content is possibly the most enlightening. This book should be required reading for anyone with a sweet tooth.

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