Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cannonball Read #48: Sweet and Low, by Rich Cohen

I never really know how to explain the part of my personality that makes me like books like this, but I usually wind up saying something like "I just really like...things." It's a little bit like that scene in Cocktail where Tom Cruise is all "some guy invented drink umbrellas and made a ZILLION DOLLARS," but more like "some guy thought of this and then made it happen. Why would you think of such a thing?" I must admit that Sweet and Low is not my favorite of the faux sweeteners, but the genesis of the product is fascinating if only for the way it fit in with sweeping changes in the American relationship with food.

Sweet and Low is an account of - surprise! - the family that created Sweet and Low and the individual packets that contain it. It's also about the American enthusiasm for dieting, individualism, mafia activity in New York, business, New York City, family dynamics, Jews and myriad other topics, all of which weave through the principle story of Sweet and Low and those little pink packets.

I think this book could have been either longer or shorter. Cohen tries to take on a lot here, connecting Sweet and Low to a massive number of topics, all of which are worthy of deeper analysis and many of which do in fact have entire research industries surrounding them. Part of making a book engaging is keeping your focus narrow enough that you can cover it comprehensively, and I don't think that needs to dictate your length, either. You could count either Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich which comes in at a brisk 992 pages in paperback or Immanuel Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals at an easily lose-able 79 pages as comprehensive works with a narrow focus. While all of the threads do come back to the main story, I was left wanting more detail on many of them.

Whenever the author of a book is directly related to the book's subject, the whole project enters a certain hazard zone. I think it's directly linked to the motive for writing the book, and there are only a few motives that don't interfere with the tone of the finished work. Cohen's book half succeeds at unbiased presentation because about half of his motivation is simple exploration. I suspect that the writing of this book began in a certain kind of...affrontedness, shall we say, stemming from his branch of the family being summarily excised from the Sweet and Low fortune. It is clear that his family history is extremely important to him, and that lineage has been important to his family generally for a very long time; the whole book is tied up in knots of family connections.

I feel that Cohen could ultimately have edited more closely for over-personal connections and fleshed out some of the historical context for the real ascendancy of the company. It's a good, quick read, but it did leave me wanting more information. I think that's a plus in the end, but it does relegate the work to a piece of a larger body as a historical document. As an interesting story about a quirky family written in brisk prose full of wit and verve however, Sweet and Low stands on its own two feet and earns your time easily.

288 pages

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