Summary and book reviews of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

The Botany of Desire

by Michael Pollan

The Botany of Desire
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  • First Published:
    May 2001, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2002, 304 pages

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Book Summary

Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.

In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant -- though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds's most basic yearnings -- and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?

Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.

Chapter 1
Desire: Sweetness
Plant: The Apple
(Malus domestica)

If you happened to find yourself on the banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring 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. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.

The peculiar craft you'd have caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

New York Times Book Review - Burkhard Bilger

[Pollan] has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places (George Eliot is somehow made to speak for the sense-attenuating value of a good high). Best of all, Pollan really loves plants. His first book described his education as a gardener, and that hands-and-knees experience animates every one of his descriptions -- whether of hydroponic marijuana (''I don't think I've ever seen plants that looked more enthusiastic'') or of roses (''flung open and ravishing in Elizabethan times, obligingly buttoned . . . up and turned prim for the Victorians.'').

Library Journal

[Pollan] weaves disparate threads from personal, scientific, literary, historical, and philosophical sources into an intriguing and somehow coherent narrative.

Publishers Weekly

Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan's fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature.

Author Blurb William Cronon, editor of Uncommon Ground Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
No one else writes about the human environment quite like Michael Pollan we can be grateful indeed that one of our wittiest writers about nature is also one of our wisest. In The Botany of Desire, Pollan makes a persuasive case that the plants we might be tempted to see as having been most domesticated by humanity are in fact also those that have been most effective in domesticating us. It is a stunning insight, and no one will come away from this book without having their ideas of nature stretched and challenged.

Author Blurb Alice Waters
Michael Pollan is a sensualist and a wonderful, funny storyteller. He is so engaging that his profound environmental messages are effortlessly communicated. He makes you fall in love with Nature.

Author Blurb Richard Ford
I find this book to be inspirational -- curiosity and gentleness of spirit forming genius.

Author Blurb Bill McKibben, author of Long Distance and The End of Nature
This book is as crisp as an October apple, as juicy as an August tomato, as long-awaited as the first flower of spring,. Michael Pollan has conceived a new and powerful understanding of who we are, and how we stand in relation to everything else--and the stories he tells to prove the point make the world seem a richer place.

Author Blurb Betty Fussell, author of My Kitchen Wars
Anyone who has ever made personal contact with an apple, spud, tulip, or marijuana bud should read this book and be astonished at the eternal tango of men and plants, choreographed with wit, daring, and humanity by this botanist of desire who knows equally the power of plants and of words.

Reader Reviews

Kim

I found this book fascinating
I have to admit I'm truly dismayed by some of the other reviews of this book posted here at Bookbrowse. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I think perhaps Botany of Desire requires a certain curiosity about that world that many of us ...   Read More

Josh

Great book with excellent points. Very well written and easy to follow, especially for a student.

Anonymous

As a student of horticulture, this book opened up a new window on the world of plants, and allowed me to see them in a new light, not as the children of my garden, but as equals or possibly even above me, able to mold me to their needs and desires...   Read More

naomie whelden college student at Paul smiths

I enjoyed the book, although some of it was a little bit hard to concentrate on. overall he caught my attention .

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