Thursday, May 30, 2013

Botany of Desire

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

(0 stars: DNF)

Have we cultivated plants, or have they cultivated us? Pollan argues that the sweetness of the apple, the beauty of the tulip, the intoxication of marihuana, and the control offered by the potato have shaped humankind - not the other way around.

I was kind of enjoying this book's combination of botany and cultural history (a la Malcolm Gladwell) until I hit the section on marijuana and the tenuous connections Pollan draws between it and religion. I just couldn't. I don't buy it when writers offer thinly supported materialistic explanations of religious phenomena, and I found Pollan's ponderings on the "profound" thoughts experienced by those who are high ridiculous. Also, his metaphors and literary references are sometimes a stretch that require too much credulity for me to follow. (Johnny Appleseed is not Dionysius. Sorry. No.)

I couldn't even make it to the potato, which is a shame because I love potatoes.

The best part of the book for me came near the end of the first section on apples, when Pollan visits a tree library full of seeds that come from Kazakhstan, the cradle of the original apple tree. His description of the tulip bulb speculation craze in Holland barely touches on a very interesting time in history, one I would love to read a book about. If there had been more history and science, and less pseudo-philosophical maundering, I would have enjoyed it more (and probably finished it).

But it's the kind of layman's science and history that has stopped seeming clever to me because these books tend to be sloppy with the details - too caught up in drawing broad, easy conclusions from sketchy knowledge. Journalists rarely make great science writers when short pieces are made book-length.

If you loved this book, sorry. If you want other books that combine cultural history and science, check these out:
Susan Orleans' book The Orchid Thief, which has fascinating details about orchids
Any of Malcolm Gladwell's books, especially The Tipping Point
Tulipomania by Mike Dash tells the full story of the Dutch tulip craze

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