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

The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without By John Oakes Cover Image

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


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With fasting at an all-time high in popularity, here is the first deep exploration into the surprising history and science behind the practice—essential to many religions and philosophies.

Whether for philosophical, political, or health-related reasons, fasting marks a departure from daily routine. It involves doing less but doing less in a radical way. Based on extensive historical, scientific, and cultural research and reporting, The Fast illuminates the numerous facets of this act of self-deprivation. John Oakes interviews doctors, spiritual leaders, activists, and others who guide him through this practice—and embarks on fasts of his own—to deliver a book that supplies readers curious about fasting with profound new understanding, appreciation, and inspiration.

In recent years, fasting has become increasingly popular for a variety of reasons—from health advocates who see fasting as a method to lose weight or to detox, to the faithful who fast in prayer, to seekers pursuing mindfulness, to activists using hunger strikes as an effective means of peaceful protest. Notable fasters include Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Cesar Chavez, and a long list of others who have drawn on its power over the ages and across borders and cultures.

The Fast looks at the complex science behind the jaw-dropping biological phenomena that occur inside the human body when we fast. Metabolic switching induced by fasting can prompt repair and renewal down to the molecular level; such fasting can provide benefits for those suffering from obesity and diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disorders, and more. Prolonged fasting can serve both to reinvigorate the immune system and to protect it against damage. Beyond the physical experience, fasting can be a great collective unifier, an instant leveler that connects us purely by virtue of being an act accessible to all, and it has been adopted by religions and political movements all over the world for millennia. Fasting is central to holy seasons and days such as Lent (Christianity), Ramadan (Islam), Yom Kippur (Judaism), Uposatha (Buddhism), and Ekadashi (Hinduism). On an individual level, devout ascetics who master self-deprivation to an extreme are believed to be closer to the divine, ascending to enlightenment or even sainthood.

Through the ages, fasting in the name of justice—a hunger strike—has signaled purity of intent and action. It’s a tactic that demands commitment, serves to highlight the cruelty of those in authority, and appeals to shared values: that we’re united by a common humanity and we deserve to be heard. Advocates who have waged hunger strikes include Gandhi in India, Bobby Sands in Ireland, and the Taxi Workers Alliance in New York City.

Fasting reminds us of the virtues of holding back, of not consuming all that we can. Ultimately, this book shows us that fasting is about much more than food: it is about taking control of your life in new and empowering ways and reconsidering your place in the world.
John Oakes is publisher of The Evergreen Review. He is editor-at-large for OR Books, which he cofounded in 2009. Oakes has written for a variety of publications, among them The Oxford Handbook of PublishingPublishers Weekly, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Associated Press, and The Journal of Electronic Publishing. Oakes is a cum laude graduate of Princeton University, where he earned the English Department undergraduate thesis prize for an essay on Samuel Beckett. He was born and raised in New York City, where he lives, and is the father of three adult children. While working on The Fast, he was awarded residencies at Yaddo (New York) and Jentel (Wyoming). The Fast is his first book.
Product Details ISBN: 9781668017418
ISBN-10: 1668017415
Publisher: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: February 13th, 2024
Pages: 320
Language: English
“Thought-provoking . . . Oakes presents an impressive cultural and historical survey of fasting. . . . Broad in scope and rich in insight, this provides plenty to ponder.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“In this well-informed, illuminating book, Oakes shows us the value of consuming less in order to know more. . . . A knowledgeable study of fasting, which has a long history and a layered present.”
Kirkus Reviews

“I couldn’t stop reading this book about not eating. And I often had food in my mouth as I read. Like any important book in my life, this one leaves me changed. And I don’t know what will happen next.” —Eileen Myles, author of For Now (Why I Write) and Evolution

“John Oakes takes us on an elegant and irresistible journey, all the while engaging us with personal experiences, scientific enlightenment, and the historical context of fasting. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, The Fast will stay with you long after you’ve read every word.”
Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Devil in the Grove

“This simple yet far-reaching account of a one-week fast shows how any of us can dissolve the constructed boundary between self and universe, experience the awe of undifferentiated existence, and make ourselves available to the greater dance of life. By all means take this inspiring journey with an instantly trustworthy guide.” —Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human

“Caloric restriction is one of the scientifically best-established ways to enhance longevity. A fascinating deep dive into the science and history of fasting.” —Steven M. Lipkin, MD, PhD; director, Adult and Cancer Genetics Clinic; Weill Cornell Medicine

“In this age of ever more, John Oakes dares to seek less in a fascinating, wonderfully researched, and beautifully written examination of the historical, philosophical, medical, and political implications of fasting—as he himself fasts and enjoys and endures the experience of ‘the presence of an absence.’” —Jeff Jarvis, author of The Gutenberg Parenthesis

“In The Fast, John Oakes, with his vast knowledge base and deep insight, helps us understand how doing without can offer a glimpse of the luminous wisdom within each of us.” —Cuong Lu, author of The Buddha in Jail and Happiness Is Overrated

“This book offers a careful look at the historical and religious practices of fasting, beautifully punctuated by daily anecdotes of the author’s experiences and emotions while fasting himself. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in better understanding fasting and its historical echoes.” —Dr. Britt Marie Hermes, former naturopathic doctor and current microbiome scientist

“John Oakes has written an expansive, encyclopedic book that imparts its lessons with unpretentious conviction. The Fast is as much an appraisal of fasting as a guide for enlarging an inner consciousness. In this consumptive era, we would do well to turn to the generous intellect of Oakes—to learn the wonders of doing without, and like other venerable humans across millennia, to seek an enrichment of spirit.”
Emmanuel Iduma, author of I Am Still With You