Sunday, December 20, 2009

Best Books of 2009: The Brother Gardeners

It's that time of year again, and your friendly neighborhood librarians are eager to tell you about the best books of 2009. Here is Hubert with a review of his favorite book of the year.

The book as a physical art object is not often mentioned in a book review, and when it is, seldom extensively or as the first item of note. This publication by Alfred Knopf, however, is simply a beautiful example of the art of the book, and the virtues of that art merit the lead. They are something I note as an encomium, but I realize we live in a time of transition from the age of print to the digital age and that this is perhaps instead a small requiem. Explaining what stands to be lost, however, might help create an appreciation that could extend the life of the book a bit.

The “apparatus” (it seems too clumsy a term) of this book is a homage to traditional scholarship, containing a fine and thoughtful index (apparently created by a human being rather than generated by a computer) detailed but not intrusive source notes, a comprehensive and well chosen bibliography, and a glossary of plant names, origins, and history of cultivation that is in itself a joy to browse. The author has led off the chapters with literary quotes from 18th century observers of the changing fashions in English gardens and gardening. The typeface chosen for the text is beautiful, the selection of illustrations are apt and interesting (nothing seems to be lacking that the reader would wish to see illustrated) and the book is jacketed so very appropriately by Mark Catesby’s spectacular 18th century illustration of Magnolia altissima, The Laurel-Tree of Carolina that came to be emblematic of the English obsession with the botanical wonders of the New World. I have not encountered a single typographical error anywhere in the extensive text and references. The creation of this book as a physical object by North Market Street Graphics of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a work of dedication and art.

This intelligent and artful presentation of the book is matched by a well chosen approach to the subject. There have been many books written on the discovery of new plants, on the importation and domestication of exotic plants, on illustrations of new plants, the development of botanical science, the English landscape garden, and cultivation. The subject is broad and difficult to circumscribe, and books that have been too ambitious often fail to integrate different facets of the subject into a coherent and narrative story. Other books simply feature one aspect of the subject, most often the spectacular botanical art that was produced in connection with the discovery of new plants. Neither approach is one that is especially productive of new scholarship or understanding of the subject. But Wulf has chosen a particular historical time frame, roughly the mid-18th century to the early 19th century, and focused on key international figures in the growth of English horticulture, careful to show the relationships of mutual interest and common ambition among them. These choices in treatment of the theme have allowed her to create a fascinating synthesis of plant history, plant hunting, botanical science, and economic development. She is able to reveal to us a working model of the engine that powered the movement. Through original research she has not only added to our knowledge and appreciation of figures like the American naturalist John Bartram, Carl Linnaeus, and the indefatigable Joseph Banks, but has shown us the nature of the friendships and passions that produced our modern conception of the world of plants with all of its wonder and diversity. This is essential and highly enjoyable reading for all who love plants and gardening.

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