Somehow, somewhere America’s version of giving thanks became stuffing ourselves with food and then collapsing into an easy chair or couch to watch football. Sharman Apt Russell’s Hunger: An Unnatural History provides an excellent counterpoint to that mindset. Before you start backing away, this isn’t some long-winded tome about famine in the third world (although famine is unquestionably part of the book). Instead, Hunger is a broad and wide-ranging exploration of and exposition on hunger as both a desire and a need, one that will make you think of it in ways you never have before.
Russell’s unique approach begins with a simple proposition: “Hunger is a country we enter every day, like a commuter across a friendly border.” She’s right. Every day virtually every person, regardless of wealth, residence or social class, will feel their body tell them that it’s hungry, that it needs fuel. Hunger is not limited to those who truly are starving.
Russell gradually expands her exploration by going through the various stages of hunger, whether it’s a body that’s gone a few hours or days without food to those who are starving to death. This includes examining the connection between hunger, albeit self-imposed via fasting, and religion.
Not eating seems to be innately religious. Physical hunger is too good a metaphor for spiritual hunger, and to fast is to proclaim your hunger for what is not physical — for the divine. At the same time, physical hunger is a metaphor for the desires of the body and to fast is to overcome those desires, to trade the body for the spirit. All the major religions expect their followers to fast in some way, at some time, and for the same reasons: to focus the mind on God, to control the body, to prepare for revelation, and to offer penance or sacrifice.
These are just two examples of the insights Russell brings to the subject. She broadens the common concept of hunger as simply a life-crushing experience and brings it into terms of everyday life and things everyone can understand. Russell moves from the micro of what happens in the body to the global, examining large scale famine and starvation and how they can be addressed. She looks at the political, such as hunger strikes and government response to famine. She even looks at the obscene, or more accurately, how obscene events such as starvation diets imposed by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto led the Jewish doctors there to gain scientific knowledge that remains valuable today.
Russell also experiments personally, briefly relating her experience with a fast she terminated after four days. Even her description sheds light on the role of food in American society. It wasn’t hunger that bothered her.
The problem was boredom. As the novelty of not-eating wore off, the boredom of not eating loomed large. We stitch the day together with flavors and rewards, the gold star of chocolate, lunch with a friend.
Although feeling the physical effects of the fast, she terminated it not because she wanted food. Instead, she yearned for “the meaning behind food,” the customs and emotions that we all unconsciously link with it.
While the rituals that accompany food become part and parcel of our lives, any overview of hunger must necessarily go beyond desire to need and include the impact of famine and spectre of starving children. Among other things, Russell opines that the common image of starvation as children in famine is a cultural bias.
In many of the places where extreme hunger exists, the survival of adults might be viewed as more important. Famine does not simply affect individuals; it can destroy societies. And the future of a group does not lie in its orphaned babies but in those men and women who can go on to reproduce again.
Although perhaps Darwinian in nature, Russell notes that the focus on saving the children may lead to obscuring the root causes of the problem and finding solutions for it.
Russell’s approach toward her subject is not alone responsible for making what might otherwise be a distasteful topic interesting for the general reader. She fully displays the talents that lead her to teaching writing at two universities. Hunger contains some wonderful concise prose, something far too often lacking in modern writing. Take, for example, this paragraph from the chapter on hungry children:
When an adult is hungry, it happens in the present tense. When a child starves, there is another dimension. It also happens in the future. For a child is potential, in the act of becoming.
Four declarative sentences consisting of 35 simple words. Yet that paragraph expresses a core idea more eloquently than a multi-paragraph discourse on the tragedy of starving children.
Such cogent writing permits Russell to convey her well-researched survey in less than 250 pages. It also makes Hunger a feast for the reader. So, if at some point during the upcoming holiday season you start thinking, “I’m hungry,” consider Russell’s book an opportunity to feed your mind by examining the breadth and scope of that concept.