Book Reviews | November 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Flora Mirabilis

Flora.jpgFlora Mirabilis How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth and Beauty, by Cahterine Herbert Howell (National Geographic Books, 256 pages, $35.) Yes, this is a title that will certainly interest gardeners, but of far greater import is the appeal it undoubtedly will have to collectors of botanical books, and people who are interested in various special collections devoted to the genre in general. How plants have figured in history is the essential theme--rice, maize, flax, wheat, cotton, opium poppy, pepper, coffee, grape, potato, passionflower, date, olive, bamboo --use your imagination, the likelihood is that it's here. But making this presentation a special bouquet of wonders for bibliophiles is the 200 illustrations, all of them reproduced from a remarkable rare book collection maintained by the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, established in 1859, and the beneficiary in 1893 of an outstanding library of pre-Linnaean works on medical botany, agriculture, and edible or otherwise useful plants gathered by Edward Sturtevant, a major collector. The earliest work represented in the volume is the Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health), a compendium of medicinal botany printed in Germany in 1487. The text is arranged in ten chapters, and follows an arc of botanical exploration and trade throughout the world. Quite a nice book, and ideal as a gift. My forthcoming piece for this month in Fine Books & Collections, incidentally, will showcase my top choices for holiday giving.

And while we're at it:

Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5,
by Christopher Andrew; Alfred A. Knopf, 1,032 pages, $40.

This is my kind of book--big, fat, packed with fascinating detail on an irresistible subject, in this instance the 100-year history of the British Security Service, better known as MI5, which opened its archives to the scrutiny of an independent historian. I won't pretend I've read the whole thing yet--it just came in a couple days ago--but what I have dipped into so far, I have devoured. realm.jpgChristeopher Andrew, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge University, is the author of 14 previous books, including two volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive. "The Service," he writes in the preface here, "like the rest of the intelligence community, was to stay as far from public view as possible." This little bit of sunshine should open a lot of eyes.