Since I'm carrying on with my summer reading project, even though it's no longer summer anymore, here's the latest installment. I was really looking forward to reading Seeds of Change (Henry Hobhouse, 1986). I'd heard from someone else, years ago, who used it in writing a research paper, that it was a really great book. I also happen to love books about food, plants, science, and history. Win-win, right?
Let me start by saying that I certainly learned a lot from this book. I probably could have learned more if I'd been taking notes or annotating as I read. This book is packed, and I mean jammed, with information. For such a short book (232 pages, and that's counting endnotes), it ranges over most of world history, with some botany, biology, and archaeology thrown in for flavor.
This book devotes one chapter each to quinine, sugar, tea, cotton, and potatoes, describing the history of each plant and how its use by humans has affected our history. This might sound a lot like Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, and while they share a basic theme, the two books are quite different. Pollan's subtitle sums up his approach--"A Plant's Eye View of the World."
While Pollan investigated the history of several plants and their interactions with human history, casting plants as the active agents and using their stories for environmental and political discussion, Hobhouse's starts and ends with human history, with much less emphasis on botany and current politics. Hobhouse's book is very much a product of its time: the 1980s revisionist historians' push to change the dominant historical discourses (Howard Zinn is the major example, of course). As such, the book contains some odd-sounding phrases and habits of writing; he uses lots of "mankind," "fellow men," and even engages in some surprising stereotypes (the industrious Asians, the inscrutable Chinese, etc).
I found each chapter of this book fascinating, full of historical information, and well-researched (complete with endnotes, clearly written for a more academic audience than Pollan's book). But many of the chapters suffered from trying to be a little too complete. For example, the chapter on tea is so wide ranging (because the topic itself is huge) that trying to pack all that information into one small book chapter was a mistake. In the introduction, Hobhouse summarizes the impact of tea on human history: "Tea was more than an incident in the American War of Independence, was instrumental in the development of porcelain in Europe and China, permanently influenced sailing ship design, and by transfer in the nineteenth century developed 'gardens' in Indian and Sri Lanka which changed the history of the subcontinent" (xiv). Just summarizing these events is a massive undertaking, so it's not surprising that reading this chapter was slightly overwhelming. I found it hard to even process so much information.
The chapter called "Quinine and the White Man's Burden" (see what I mean about the language?) is another one that, while fascinating in its information, is far too big in its scope. Not only does Hobhouse write a fairly detailed history of white peoples' interactions with the cinchona tree and quinine (the drug derived from the tree's bark), but he tries to squeeze in a quick summary of the history of synthetic drug manufacturing and its origins with the Germans in the World War II era. It was just a little too much; it felt tacked-on and awkward.
The chapters that are more circumspect work better. The chapter on cotton and the American South, for example, was very interesting and much easier to follow, since it was confined to only two continents and a fairly limited period of time.
I'm happy to have read this book, but it didn't grip me in the way that other Natural Revisionist History of [Insert Noun Here] books have gripped me. Recommended if you're really into food, plants, or European history (like I am!).