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Michael Pollan – The Botany of Desire

Title: The Botany of Desire
Author: Michael Pollan
Year: 2005

I selected this book quite randomly, but after reading the introduction, I thought it sounded interesting with a book examining the parallel evolution of plants and humans and claiming to be able to illuminate the subject in a new way. The common way to view things is of course that humans are in control of most things (especially domesticated plants, just look at that word), but in this book, Michael Pollan promulgates another paradigm which focuses on mutual exchange and evolution.

Sadly, the really interesting bit ends with the introduction. Setting up this fairly epic goal of radically changing the reader’s outlook on the place of other living things in our lives, he then goes on to discuss at length something mundane (and, at least to my mind, boring) as Johnny Appleseed. It’s not that I can’t understand what a discussion about him has to do in the narrative, it’s just that the original goal of the book gets lost on the way. The first part of four is about the apple and almost made me give up the book.

Fortunately, I continued with the second and third parts, about tulips and cannabis. These proved to be really interesting, not in the light of the ambitious intentions laid down in the introduction, but because of the fascinating tales and information about these plants and their role in history as well as modern day society. The fourth part is a bit more down-to-earth (it’s about the the potato) and also a bit dull.

There are two critical problems with this book. The first is that it isn’t about what the author says it’s about. Michael Pollan claims it’s about co-evolution and about changing the way we view the world, but instead, he gets bogged down in detailed descriptions of completely different things (like whether or not Johnny Appleseed liked young girls). The second problem is that two of the four parts don’t interest me at all.

That being said, there are some advantages as well. To begin with, Pollan is far from being a bad author. Even the bits with boring details are still readable because of his smooth and fluent prose. He knows how to tell an anecdote, to put it briefly. In addition to this, the chapters on the tulip and on cannabis is really interesting, regardless of the aim of the book. In all, I would say that the patrs I like roughly counters the disappointment of not getting what I thought I would get and the frustration generated by the first and fourth chapters. I’m a bit sad to give this book three snails, because really, it could have been a lot better.

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  1. Xhakhal’s avatar

    I didn’t read this book, although I did get it some time ago. I read ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ instead and found it to have pretty much the flaws you’re describing, but less of them than I get the impression “The Botany of Desire” has. It also has a bit of a different goal – its intentions tend more towards the informative than the thought-provoking – and is set up in a way that makes Pollan’s tangents be less annoying and more interesting.
    Also it convinced me that corn is by far the coolest crop on the planet. If you’re still interested in books on the subject, and think Pollan is worth giving a second chance, I do recommend “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It also only gains momentum after a little bit, but I liked it nonetheless.

    And it has a much prettier cover, too.
    I also misquoted it entirely (and probably remembered almost everything wrong) in this the.reprobate snippet of thought: http://the.reprobate.se/2009/12/the-corn-people/


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      I would be prepared to read other books by the author, because he’s quite good at writing anecdotes, it’s just that they didn’t fit in very well here. Still, they were quite interesting in themselves and so reading more of them, perhaps bundled together in a more convincing way, would be interesting as well as entertaining.