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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World [Paperback]

Michael Pollan
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (99 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 28 2002
The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most trusted food experts in America

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World + Second Nature: A Gardener's Education + The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
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From Amazon

Working in his garden one day, The Botany of Desire author Michael Pollan hit pay dirt in the form of an idea: do plants, he wondered, use humans as much as we use them? While the question is not entirely original, the way Pollan examines this complex coevolution by looking at the natural world from the perspective of plants is unique. The result is a fascinating and engaging look at the true nature of domestication.

In making his point, Pollan focuses on the relationship between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes. He uses the history of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) to illustrate how both the apple's sweetness and its role in the production of alcoholic cider made it appealing to settlers moving west, thus greatly expanding the plant's range. He also explains how human manipulation of the plant has weakened it, so that "modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop". The tulipomania of 17th-century Holland is a backdrop for his examination of the role the tulip's beauty played in wildly influencing human behaviour to both the benefit and detriment of the plant (the markings that made the tulip so attractive to the Dutch were actually caused by a virus).

His excellent discussion of the potato combines a history of the plant with a prime example of how biotechnology is changing our relationship to nature. As part of his research, Pollan visited the Monsanto company headquarters and planted some of their NewLeaf brand potatoes in his garden--seeds that had been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide. Though they worked as advertised, he made some startling discoveries, primarily that the NewLeaf plants themselves are registered as a pesticide by the EPA and that federal law prohibits anyone from reaping more than one crop per seed packet. And in a interesting aside, he explains how a global desire for consistently perfect French fries contributes to both damaging monoculture and the genetic engineering necessary to support it.

Pollan has read widely on the subject and elegantly combines literary, historical, philosophical, and scientific references with engaging anecdotes, giving readers much to ponder while weeding their gardens. --Shawn Carkonen, --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. On the sixth anniversary of its original publication, Pollan's scientific twist on the human/plant symbiosis makes its audio debut. Pollan preaches a unique sort of romantic environmentalism where humans and plants satisfy each other's desires for survival, enjoyment, satisfaction and escape. He uses the apple, tulip, Cannabis and potato to develop his ideas, offering the histories of each and how they developed reciprocal relationships with the humans with whom each interacted. Scott Brick exudes excitement and breathes life into the recording—the timbre of his voice offering just the right touch of humor and depth. Listeners will feel like Brick truly loves the book and loves reading it aloud. It's a great combination for listeners: interesting subject, great writing and wonderful reading. Definitely not to be missed. (Reviews, Apr. 9, 2001)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
If you happened to find yourself on the banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the springs of 1806-somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say-you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nature and Culture from a Gardener's Perspective June 15 2004
While you probably wouldn't want to use "The Botany of Desire" for scientific research purposes, this excellent nonfiction book effectively combines elements of science with those of history, cultural theory and mythology (from the early Greek to the Frontier American varieties). The tone is casual, not scholarly. Pollan is also a gardener, and his passion for growing things and his curiosity about life from the plant's-eye view shines through his text.
"The Botany of Desire" is a nonfiction book with an innovative structure: instead of telling a straight chronological story of the domestication of plants, Pollan instead selects four plants and tells each of their stories in turn, describing how their progress through the world has been shaped by human desires -- and the changes in those desires through history.
This book is also a travelogue of sorts: Pollan journeys through the Midwest in search of Johnny Appleseed's true life story, to Holland for the Cannabis Cup and the historical sites of "tulipomania," and to corporate factory forms to learn about genetic modification of the potato.
Most importantly, Pollan shows us around his own garden and introduces us to the plants that live there. Each of the four historical narratives begins and ends with the plant's history in his own backyard. As a host and a travel guide, Pollan takes on a fascinating journey through time, nature and culture.
I highly recommend this book to plant lovers and gardeners of all varieties, and to those who are interested in the shaping of nature by cultural forces (and vice versa). If this isn't you, it would still probably make a great gift for someone you know.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating page turner May 12 2004
By Suez
Wildly Enthusiastic Recommend: Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
This book is really different from your average reading fare. It's a delightful mix of facts both scientific and historical, fantastical meanderings, and just plain fun. The catching premise is that plants have co-opted man into promoting their prosperity. Pollan uses four plants to illustrate this premise: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. Each chapter is a wonderfully readable story about the plant and its history intertwined with its relationship to man. The apple chapter has amazing information about Johnny Appleseed, and because as a child I wanted to be Johnny Appleseed, I found this fascinating. It reinforced my belief that I had good instincts as a kid. Then the tulip chapter gives you the details of tulip-mania in the Netherlands in the 1600s (think Internet bubble), making it seem amazing that this sort of thing keeps happening. The marijuana chapter is the funniest and most sinister in that it makes you want to get some good stuff, now. The potato chapter is the scariest - genetically modified foods.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution and Biodiversity Sept. 15 2007
Listened to the audio version, I recommend this very highly if you are interested in issues such as evolutionary theory, genetic engineering and genetically modified food, biodiversity, and even the fascinating true story of Johnny Appleseed.

Pollan has some interesting insights about a popular concept in evolution, psychology, and even religious studies - the idea of intentionality. Yes, we have through artificial selection modified species such as the potato and the tulip, but has the apple, for instance, modified us to advance its own survival as a species? And if so, can we say it did so with intentionality? And if not, can we say that homo sapiens modified the apple with intentionality?

Well-written and easy to read and listen to, and I'm kinda fussy - I say buy it...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Ideas, Boring Read Nov. 17 2003
By A Customer
The Botany of Desire presents an innovative way to think about how plants have propagated. The ideas are fresh, but, unfortunately, too few for an entire book. This subject matter would have been better served in essay format. The history presented about the tulip, rose and potato is fun and interesting--worth the read in these parts, even though one has to wade through the interspersed philosophical musings of the author that are reiterated one too many times in (dare I say it?) overly-flowery language. The self-deprecating, blushing tales of pot smoking experimentation were silly and not worth the time to read. Honestly, I cannot recommend this book unless you want to be bored most of the time while reading it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Tripped out experience!! Oct. 28 2003
By Ashwin
Reading this book is like taking a little journey, and credit for this goes to the wonderful writing style and brilliant sequencing of narratives by the writer. The book at a basic level aims to explore the close interplay of humanity and four different botanical elements, and attempts to show the influence that this interplay has had on the flow of history.
Starting with the tale of Johnny Appleseed set in a languorous backdrop, the book slowly edges forward to the tale of the Tulip ... set in the backdrop of a Europe that was beginning to emerge as a major sea-faring continent with amazing adventurers. The book then makes a silent detour into the taboo plant of Marijuana (for the serious/ex- users of weed, the descriptions of the experiences and the scientific analysis of the subject is ...simply Mind Blowing). Following this section and having set the reader on a contemplative path, the book now races to a climactic finish with a brilliant discussion on the issues regarding genetically modified crops and their socio-econo-political consequences.
MP is a writer par excellence, and this makes the book a wonderful read. The book is almost like a little rivulet, that goes on to become a roaring river, which calms down on its final leg to the sea... and then merges with the vast ocean that is limitless and boundless. And while doing so, MP touches subjects as diverse as history, geography, politics, economics and of course... botany!
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Missing Pages
This book was delivered to me with 30 pages missing. They weren't ripped out, they were just not printed properly i guess.
Published 9 months ago by Sean Thompson
4.0 out of 5 stars Required reading for gardener and gourmet.
From the tomato, suspected of poisonous intentions to the tulip, creator of financial frenzy, on to marijuana and the political machinations that surround it, to the potato and the... Read more
Published on June 2 2012 by Virginia
3.0 out of 5 stars Delightful AND Infuriating
This book is both delightful and infuriating. Pollan is at heart a poet. He weaves word pictures with consummate skill. The results are truly magical. Read more
Published on Sept. 15 2011 by Roedy Green
5.0 out of 5 stars thought provoking
As always Michael Pollan shows a point of view that isn't neccessarily obvious. He enlightens, entertains with his humour and offers a fresh, informative perspective. Read more
Published on Jan. 7 2010 by Colleen M. Kent
4.0 out of 5 stars How passionate are you about plants?
Pollan's book was pleasurable and engaging to read. It is a book that got me to think and expanded my perspective. Read more
Published on July 14 2004 by Glen Gillmore
1.0 out of 5 stars Painful.
I got a library copy, so I'm really glad.
Pollan has the amazing ability to go from Point A to B through the most circuitous route imaginable. Read more
Published on March 22 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for those who love plants
Ever wonder what part of the Jonny Appleseed myth was fact or fiction? Or how genetically modified potatoes have changed agriculture in Idaho? Read more
Published on Feb. 2 2004 by Nelumbo
1.0 out of 5 stars Too Little Genuine Research & Many Convoluted Conclusions!
This book is a prime example of a little knowledge ending up misleading the author and anyone who reads his writings. Read more
Published on Jan. 31 2004 by J. Janos
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