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Book Review: Hunger: An Unnatural History (2005)

Somehow, somewhere America’s version of giving thanks became stuffing ourselves with food and then collapsing into an easy chair 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 book about famine in the third world (although that is unquestionably part of it). Instead, Hunger is a broad and wide-ranging exploration of and exposition on the subject, one that will make you think of hunger in ways you never have before

Russell’s unique approach begins at the outset. She starts from 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 a day without food to those who are starving to death. Among other things, she examines the connection between hunger, albeit self-imposed via fasting, and religion. She basically 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 the impact on the individual to the global, examining large scale famine and starvation and how they can be addressed. She looks at the personal, briefly recounting her experience with a fast she terminated after four days. She even looks at the obscene, or more accurately, how obscene events such as forced starvation imposed by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto led the Jewish doctors there to gain scientific knowledge that remains valuable today.

Of course, any overview of hunger must include the impact of famine and spectre of starving children. Among other things, Russell observes that the common image of starvation as being children in famine is a cultural bias. She even advances a proposition some may find Darwinian: that in some places survival of adults may be more important than the survival of children because “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.” She makes this point in assessing whether 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 why she teaches 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 this 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.


[T]he fetus’s response to hunger affects an adult throughout his or her life. Those changes may be as subtle as a larger dress size or as blatant as madness.

Sharman Apt Russell, Hunger: An Unnatural History

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1 comment to Book Review: Hunger: An Unnatural History (2005)

  • I was curious about the Minnesota starvation experiment and whether the “volunteers” really did volunteer or if they were forced to participate because they were conscientious objectors. I suppose I should go to the library and look it up, but I can be a little lazy.