Sometimes it’s hard not to approach food books with a touch of cynicism. In recent years, books about different food products or different kinds of food—from bread to sugar and from fast food to slow food—might be the only genre to outnumber YA dystopian fantasies.
I love a good food book, but after reading so many it’s hard not to wonder (when picking up a new title): is this going to be the one that’s just chasing the trend? Indeed, I felt a little cynicism when I picked up a book with the word “seeds” prominently displayed on the front cover. The full title did little to change my mind: The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History.
Within its pages, though, it’s clear that author Thor Hanson is not chasing a trend. This is a man who loves his seeds (and grains, nuts, kernels, etc.). It’s also clear that The Triumph of Seeds is about a lot more than just food; it’s about survival.
Part of Hanson’s job, to be truthful, is not that difficult. It shouldn’t be hard to convince people that seeds, nuts, etc. are important. One thought can probably cement this idea for most people: coffee. Hanson does go into more detail though: “We live in a world of seeds. From our morning coffee and bagel to the cotton in our clothes and the cup of cocoa we drink before bed, seeds surround us all day long. They give us food and fuels, intoxicants and poisons, oils, dyes, fibers, and spices.”
Another part of Hanson’s job is perhaps a bit more challenging. It’s one thing to show that seeds are important. It’s quite another to make them interesting enough so that a person who doesn’t particularly care about seeds (other than to momentarily give thanks for caffeine, a cotton sweater, or a poppy seed bagel) wants to read a book dedicated to seeds. Hanson recognizes this and ends the preface: “If I have done my job right, you will see in the end what I have come to know, and what Noah [Hanson’s seed-obsessed child] apparently realized from the start: seeds are a marvel, worthy of our study, praise, wonder, and any number of exclamations points. (!)”
Hanson does his job well. And in the end becomes one of my favorite kind of writers—the kind who can take something so seemingly (and perhaps deceptively) simple and so often overlooked and make it not only relevant, but fun.
The Triumph of Seeds works for several reasons. First, it’s just enjoyable to read, and Hanson has a good sense of humor. The book has lines like “Before seeds, plant sex was pretty dull stuff” and chapter titles like “Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut”. Another favorite passage is when Hanson is almost bitten by a pit viper: “I recognized it as a fer-de-lance, a snake famed throughout Central America for its unfortunate combination of strong venom and a short temper. In this individual’s defense, however, I must confess that I had been poking it with a stick.” If Hanson is having fun wondering whether running or staying put is the safest course of action after almost being bitten by the snake, he seems positively gleeful that purchasing Almond Joys and visiting coffee shops are (for him) legitimate business activities/expenses. It’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm.
Hanson is also just a good storyteller—although strangely enough one of my favorite stories doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s from the chapter “Death by Umbrella”, and details author
Georgi Markov’s death by something akin to an umbrella gun. Hanson uses the story to introduce the idea of the “homicidal potential of seeds”, although the chapter continues on to discuss the medicinal properties of seeds. Another good story (and one with a happier ending), is when Hanson tries to crack a seed in his office by dropping his desk on it (it doesn’t work, but it sure does irritate the forestry professor trying to conduct a class in the next room).
The book’s range is also impressive. The chapter that focuses primarily on coffee (titled “The Cheeriest Beans”) opens in 1732 on a French merchant ship that contained a small coffee tree and then references an 1810 Charles Lamb poem (albeit not his best) that begins “Whenever I fragrant coffee drink/ I on the generous Frenchman think / Whose noble perseverance bore/ The tree to Martinico’s shore.” A dozen or so pages later and Hanson is talking about the Internet, social media and Wired magazine, which “takes its name from an insider term with overlapping meanings: fluent in the digital world, and buzzing from stimulants.”
In the end and in large part because of this range, Hanson provides a valuable lesson that goes well beyond seeds and into education in general. People who want to get students more interested in science would do well to read The Triumph of Seeds and take note: tell stories, combine science and technology with pop culture, art, and literature, have a sense of humor, be enthusiastic. Write a book that uses terms like gymnosperm and paleobotany and also talks about the college version of the breakfast of champions—Wheaties doused with beer.