Book Club Review: The Botany of Desire

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, we get four stories: the histories of apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. You might not think the story of a plant would be very compelling, but as our Plaza Branch Barista’s Book Club learned, Pollan intrigues readers through careful management of historical facts, research, and personal anecdotes.

Pollan, a journalist, author, and food activist, follows the co-evolution of each plant with humans – how they interact, how they have affected one another, and how that affects the world – using the framework of four human desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and food.

Each story is liberally interwoven with Pollan’s own tales of gardening – he grew every plant mentioned in the story in his own garden. He also takes us with him as he researches his topics: we travel to Ohio looking for the story of the real Johnny Appleseed; we take a trip to Amsterdam in search of the expatriate American pot industry; to the Monsanto labs in St. Louis, which have produced the world’s first potato genetically altered to contain its own pesticide; and to Idaho, where farmers spray their crops with toxic chemicals in search of the perfect spud. 

These are stories of chaos and control (or attempted control) and Pollan refers frequently to the archetypal images of Dionysus and Apollo, two figures heavily involved in agriculture but representing two very different ideals. Apollo inspired order (picture rows of vegetables, or the orderliness of genetically identical grafted plants); Dionysus, disorder (the irrationality of 17th-century Dutch tulip speculation, or the feeling of intoxication). Each one of these figures is almost as much a character in the book as Pollan himself.

For the month of September, the Barista’s Book Club at the Plaza Branch met to discuss Pollan’s book and share their thoughts. Reactions were mixed, if overall positive, toward the book.

Members were amazed that Pollan could take such ordinary subjects and make an interesting book. Some thought Pollan’s framework was a little too rigid. It was as if he had allotted himself a certain number of pages and filled them, whether he was finished telling the story or not. If the story wasn’t enough, he would stretch it; if it was too long, he condensed. Pollan could have been more efficient, some felt.

Many could feel Pollan’s activist message loud and clear through what purported to be a straightforward history -- and this was not necessarily a bad thing. Our club spent much time discussing recent developments in food science and genetic engineering.

A few, myself included, felt a degree of inspiration to grow something, a là Pollan – to get out in those gardens and plant some apples, or try some potatoes. And while September may be a bad time to be inspired to garden, it is just in time to plant some tulips.

About the Author

-- Diana Hyle is a reference librarian at the Plaza Branch. To join her book club, e-mail her at or call 816.701.3481. The Barista's Book Club's next selection is The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey.

Learn more about all of our Library book clubs at