I love micro-histories – books that delve into the history and specifics of one small specific thing. One of my favourites is The Big Necessity by Rose George, about human waste (and the toilet). Just for balance, my least favourite is Stiff by Mary Roach.
The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson is about, well: seeds. I requested the book because the cover looked pretty cool and because, as I already said, I enjoy finding out really random and extensive things about one focused object.
In nature and in culture, seeds are fundamental—objects of beauty, evolutionary wonder, and simple fascination. How many times has a child dropped the winged pip of a maple, marveling as it spirals its way down to the ground, or relished the way a gust of wind(or a stout breath) can send a dandelion’s feathery flotilla skyward? Yet despite their importance, seeds are often seen as a commonplace, their extraordinary natural and human histories overlooked.
Hanson has a fabulous relationship with his subject. He speaks of them in the same breath as his family, and he writes fondly about them. He exalts their qualities: seeds nourish, they unite, they endure, they defend and they travel.
His sense of humour is rather enjoyable. For example, when he compares the reproduction of seed-bearing plants to that of spore-bearing plants, he writes,
When spore plants have sex, they usually do it in dark, wet places, and quite often with themselves.
Most enjoyable is the placement of seeds we know – or their products. Coffee beans, cocoa, chilies, ricin, coumarin – the latter both derived in one way or another from seeds, believe it or not – become altogether relatable. He interweaves their histories with human histories: wars, assassinations, economic booms and collapses.
Things I loved learning:
- how climate influences the heat of chilies
- how caffeine influences the growth of the coffee plant and its competitors
- how coumarin was developed
- the evolutionary impetus for the development of fruits
Of course, this book has a big dose of science as well. And I liked the way Hanson elaborates on his science. He does not dumb it down so much that the reader feels patronized, but he does not fill it to the brim with hard-to-understand jargon, either.
So basically, Thor Hanson has written a pretty awesome micro-history of seeds, and I loved it. It didn’t read fast, but it sure read well, and I fully intend to get a physical copy of my own.
Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.