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on 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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on May 12, 2004
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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on September 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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on June 2, 2012
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 frightening effects of genetic manipulation, The Botany of Desire informs, illuminates, entertains and cautions us about plants and our relations with them. Only the section on marijuana deviated from the title, giving us more of the author's point of view than the plant's. The final section on the potato, Monsanto and the practices of factory farming should be required reading for consumers, producers and those who are taxed with making decisions about pesticides, fertilizers and land use.

Virginia Winters, author of The Facepainter Murders, available on
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on November 17, 2003
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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on October 28, 2003
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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on July 17, 2003
I read this book after hearing a talk by Pollan on New Dimensions radio (in their "Bioneers" series), and I found it (like his talk) perfectly delightful. I don't agree that his use of science is misleading: he's done his homework and researched his subjects pretty thoroughly, and if he takes sides on an issue (e.g., anti-pesticide and anti-genetic-engineering), it's a reasoned conclusion rather than an unthinking bias. The book is anecdotal and impressionistic, not a closely-reasoned scientific argument, but I felt that its rather loose structure worked well: it's a fun read, he kept me interested all the way through, and I learned a surprising amount about history, botany, and horticulture. I've read several accounts of the Potato Famine, but Pollan's "take" on it was intriguing: he sees it as the world's most ghastly example of the dangers of monoculture, and I agree that it's a lesson we all need to take to heart. (But it's also a case of How A Fungus Changed The World: if the potato blight hadn't dispersed the Irish all over the world, many countries -- in Latin America, as well as the obvious contenders, Australia and the U.S. -- would be very different today.) The book is easy to read and amusing, but he also makes some important points, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.
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on November 6, 2002
Read this book and you may never eat a conventionally grown potato again. I know I won't. If I hadn't been a dedicated organic gardener for over 40 years, I would become one after reading THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. I find it incredibly puzzling that more people haven't bitten the organic bullet. I truly believe a diet of conventionally grown food can shorten your life and bring on all sorts of aches, pains, and illnesses you might not otherwise suffer. Organic gardening works and the stuff you grow is better for you. If you can't grow it, for goodness sakes, hustle on down to your closest Whole Foods store and buy it. Organic food may be more expensive than conventional foods, but in the long run you will save on medical bills.
Michael Pollen's book is simply the best set of gardening essays I've read in a long while, maybe ever. And that's saying a lot because I am a big fan of gardening books (I've reviewed over 100 of them for Amazon). I haven't read something so enjoyable since Henry Mitchell's columns and books. It's not often a book of garden essays can make you laugh (misadventures with Mary Jane), make you cry (one million Irish dead of starvation), make you angry (one million Irish dead), and make you smile (is there any tulip so lovely as 'The Queen of the Night?'
Pollan covers four plants, Apples, Tulips, Marijuana, and Potatoes. His first chapter on apples, disabused me of all my notions about Johnny Appleseed. I had read Anna Pavord's book THE TULIP, so the tulip section of Pollan's book was the least interesting for me, although he added some interesting anecdotal information.
The best section of this book as far as I am concerned is the chapter on Marijuana. My husband is a substance abuse counselor and I recommended the chapter to him. It could have been titled, "Everything you ever wanted to know about Marijuana that they didn't tell you in medical school or criminology class." If you haven't yet decided the U.S. government officials who devised the war on drugs are nuts, read this chapter and you will become convinced. Drug war indeed!!! Didn't we learn anything with Al Capone??
The section on the potato plant is downright scary. Pollan's adventures with Monsanto are illuminating. Once again, the feds come out as the dumb bunnies. Or, maybe it's the elected officials and their appointees who won't let the EPA and USDA do it's job. The material on evolution in this section nicely complements Steve Jones' DARWIN'S GHOST. Monsanto is in the process of obtaining patents on natural substances and evolutionary processes that will affect the whole food chain-and the CEO says "trust me". Yeah, right.
Do yourself a favor, during the cold weather ahead. Curl up in an easy chair with a cup of tea and read this book. Whether you garden or not, you will love it.
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on October 23, 2002
Despite the title, this book contains very little botany and almost everything is a history of animals' relationship with plants and how humans affected certain plants rather than the other way around. The text focuses on four plants (apple trees, tulips, marijuana plants, and potatoes) which gives the author little opportunity to explore the affect of plants on the rest of the world. I would have preferred the author turned the subject around to show major ways that plants affect the world with many different plant examples for each effect.
The author mostly rambles through loosely related anecdotes that stand on their own and might do better as short stories in magazines or the Sunday edition of the paper. His central premise---that plants purposedly affect the world---is almost completely abandoned after a few pages. Indeed, most of the stories show man's breeding of plants for specific characteristics rather than the other way around. The anecdotes are more about the author's activities while researching the book than the topic itself, and he comes across as a rube most of the time. Although that may appeal to some readers, I felt misled by the advertising and title.
Some of the histories are interesting, but are poorly supported which creates the tone of a high school book report rather than a story written by someone with a command of the subject. The reader would be better off reading separate books on the history of each of the four plants. A good editor could cut two-thirds of this book and still keep all of the good stuff, although he would change the title to not mislead the reader.
In all, the premise is a wonderful idea, but the book is poorly executed.
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on September 2, 2002
The central idea of this book - the idea that plants obtain a Darwinian benefit from appealing to the desires of humans - underlies four essays each on a single plant (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes). Frequently this thesis was buried underneath another of Pollan's interesting ideas (for example the futility of man's manipulation of the natural environment, or what makes the apple peculiarly "American").
But to be honest I did not mind. Pollan is a completely entertaining writer. He is equal parts funny, insightful, poetic, and informative. For example, I loved his extended metaphor of the variability of nature as a library. Each apple tree looks about the same, but inside they are quite different. The value of the library lies in these differences.
The reasons I gave this book a "4" rather than a "5" may be minor from your perspective, depending on your own reading habits: The Tulip essay was well done but not news if you have read other books or articles on Holland's tulip mania. The Marijuana essay seemed to me a bit, um, disjointed and paranoid (hmmmm...wonder why?) although still entertaining. You may have already read the Apple essay in Harpers and/or the potato essay in the NYT Sunday Magazine. If you have not, however, they are both must reads (you will never eat a non-organic potato again when Pollan gets done with you).
Pollan's book itself illustrates the generative power of variability - he floats from idea to idea like a bee, and something new is created as a result.
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