cover image The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without

The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without

John Oakes. Avid Reader, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-66801-741-8

This thought-provoking debut from OR Books cofounder Oakes weaves meditations on fasting into an account of his successful attempt to go a week without food. He reports undertaking the fast as a kind of “personal exorcism,” realizing by the end that “I eat out of habit” and “routine can be the enemy of rationality and control.” Explaining how the body responds to fasting, he notes that the stomach generates the hormone ghrelin to stimulate hunger, but gives up after three days without food, at which point the body draws on “excess glucose stored in the muscles and liver” to create energy. Oakes presents an impressive cultural and historical survey of fasting, touching on its role as a form of nonviolent resistance to British rule in India and Ireland; its ritual use in the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism; and its use as a dubious cure-all, originating in a 1558 self-help book by Venetian nobleman Luigi Cornaro. Oakes’s nuanced take on fasting also considers its dangers; he suggests that while temporarily abstaining can provide an antidote to capitalism’s imperative to consume, the compulsion to permanently eradicate bodily desires can lapse into anorexia, which he describes as a biological disorder “related to but distinct from” fasting. Broad in scope and rich in insight, this provides plenty to ponder. Photos. Agent: Paul Bresnick, Bresnick Weil Literary. (Feb.)