Books: The Botany of Desire

I have this rule. The rule is simply this: I’ll abandon a book if, after reading a third, I find that not enjoying it. There is just too much good reading material out there to waste my time plowing through the final 600 pages of Underworld. On the other hand, I force myself to at least read a third, even of something that doesn’t immediately float my boat. I may well miss out on some terrific novels that happen to get interesting 2/5 of the way through, but I’m comfortable with that.

The Botany of Desire is divided into four sections: Apple, Tulip, Marijuana and Potato. After finishing section one, I was ready to return Desire to the library unfinished. But, in accordance with my rule, I decided to read at least until the 1/3 point, and then opted to go ahead and finish the second chapter. I finished section two on my morning bus ride and decided to give up on the book, but then Some Random Guy In An Elevator talked me into finishing it. I entered the car carrying the Desire, he glanced at it and said “Oh wow, I just finished that and it was great. How far are you?” I said I had just finished “Tulip”. He said “That’s just where it starts to get really good!” Dad nabbit!

So, yeah, I read the whole thing. And, in retrospect, I’m glad I did. The problem I was having with The Botany of Desire wasn’t that I found it poorly written or uninteresting, but simply that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Picking up the book at the library, I had assumed that it was going to be a book about, well, botany – that is, the science and evolution of plants. And it even bills itself as such, claiming to take “A Plant’s-eye View of the World”. I had imaged something akin to Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, a story told entirely from the point of view of an organism’s genetic matter, being passed down from generation to generation. And according to the introduction, this is the book that Michael Pollan set out to write. But he fails, and instead resorts to telling the tale of these plants from a human’s point of view – and sometimes seems to forget about the plants altogether.

Take the first chapter, “Apples” — the one I almost quit after. He starts out talking about how the apple first reached the shores of America, and how they were propagated throughout the land. This story cannot be told, obviously, without mention of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. But as soon as Johnny strolls into the picture, he becomes the focus of Pollan’s writing. Pollan occasionally remembers that he’s supposed to be talking about fruit, but the “Plant’s-eye view” is dropped almost from the get-go. Halfway through I flipped to the “About the Author” section to see what else this guy had written, only to find that he’s not a science writer by trade. He is, in fact, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. And that’s what these chapters seem to be: essays written on the topic of plants, but certainly not scientific investigations.

Worse, when he does spell out the science, he often gets it wrong. Take this passage, explaining why cloned apple tress are at risk from new preditors:

The problem very simply is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when they are grown from a seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time, the viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that allows them to overcome whatever resistance the apples might have once possessed.
Of the four predators listed — viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects – the first three reproduce asexually (although fungi have been known to shack up from time to time). Lines like this drove me crazy.

But once I accepted the fact that Pollan wasn’t a scientist and I wasn’t reading a scientific book, I came to enjoy Botany of Desire a lot more. Take as essays, each chapter is quite enjoyable. Pollan is a fine writer, and it’s clear he has done his research — if not into the science of each plant, then at least into the people who work with them. So pick it up if you’re interested in Science Lite Lite. If you’re looking for anything deeper, you’ll find Botany leaves something to be desired.