From gardens to coffee to LSD, Michael Pollan asks questions about the human relationship to nature through environment and food. The Michael Pollan books are then the result of his inquiring mind.
These books share his learnings in an approachable way. Through years of writing Pollan has found his distinct tone which is straight-forward, yet humorous. This has made him a leading voice in the nonfiction genre.
About Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan has had a busy career as an author, journalist, and professor at two prestigious universities. Pollan teaches at Harvard University within the English department as a professor of the practice non-fiction and a Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley within the graduate school of journalism.
In addition to nine books, two alternate editions, and an audiobook exclusive, Pollan has also brought his inquisitive nature onto the screen through multiple documentaries.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that in 2010 he was named to Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
He was born in 1955 and grew up on Long Island. He then obtained his post-secondary education from Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University. Pollan now lives in the Bay Area in California.
Michael Pollan Books
Each Michael Pollan book tackles a new question. However, all of his questions come back to the human relationship with nature. Therefore, in looking at his books in publication order, you can see how Pollan’s inquiries evolved as he found the answer to one question, and was led to a new question.
He describes his life work as being built around questions and then framing questions. This leads to a cycle of asking questions, receiving answers, and being led to more questions.
Almost all of Pollan’s books deal with the personal, how he interacts and reacts in a scenario, as well as how society reacts on a larger scale. But there is an evolution from his first book about the relationship between gardener and nature to his most recent publication tackling the societal assumptions surrounding drugs.
- Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991)
- A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams (1997)
- The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001)
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006)
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008)
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat (Young Readers Edition) (2009)
- Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2009)
- Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)
- Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Illustrated Edition) (2013)
- How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (2018)
- Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World (2020)
- This Is Your Mind On Plants (2021)
A Summary of Michael Pollan Books
Below you will summaries for each of the Michael Pollan books. This will follow the trajectory of his career as he moves from asking questions about his life to broader questions society is facing.
1. Second Nature
After Michael Pollan bought an old Connecticut dairy farm he planted a garden and attempted to follow Thoreau’s example. That guidance was to not impose your will upon the wilderness, the woodchucks, or the weeds. That ethic did not, of course, work.
But neither did pesticides or firebombing the woodchuck burrow. So, Michael Pollan began to think about the troubled borders between nature and contemporary life.
The result is a funny, profound, and beautifully written book in the finest tradition of American nature writing. It inspires thoughts on the war of the roses; sex and class conflict in the garden; virtuous composting; the American lawn; seed catalogs, and the politics of planting a tree. It is a blend of meditation, autobiography, and social history.
2. A Place of My Own
Pollan turns his sharp insight to the craft of building, as he recounts the process of designing and constructing a small one-room structure on his rural Connecticut property. It was a place in which he hoped to read, write, and daydream, built with his two own unhandy hands.
Invoking the titans of architecture, literature, and philosophy, Pollan brilliantly chronicles a realm of blueprints, joints, and trusses. From the spark of an idea to the search for a perfect site to the raising of a ridgepole, Pollan revels in the infinitely detailed, complex process of creating a finished structure.
At once superbly written, informative, and enormously entertaining, A Place of My Own is for anyone who has ever wondered how the walls around us take shape. And also how we might shape them ourselves.
3. The Botany of Desire
Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed reciprocal relationships similar to that of honeybees and flowers. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires — sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control — with the plants that satisfy them: The apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato.
In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?
4. The Omnivore’s Dilemma
What should we have for dinner? The question has confronted us since man discovered fire. But according to Michael Pollan, how we answer it today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, may well determine our very survival as a species.
The omnivore’s dilemma has returned with a vengeance, as the cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet confronts us with a bewildering and treacherous food landscape. What’s at stake in our eating choices is not only our own and our children’s health, but the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.
5. In Defense of Food
There’s plenty of food around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it? Because most of what we’re consuming today is not food, as well as how we’re consuming it, is not really eating.
Instead of food, we’re consuming “edible foodlike substances” — no longer the products of nature but of food science. The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American paradox. The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.
6. Food Rules
Eating doesn’t have to be so complicated. In this age of ever-more elaborate diets and conflicting health advice, Pollan brings back simplicity to our decisions about food.
Written with the clarity, concision, and wit that has become his trademark, this indispensable handbook lays out a set of straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely. There is one rule per page accompanied by a concise explanation.
Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements — fire, water, air, and earth — to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.
In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world. That’s because the cook stands squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.
8. How to Change Your Mind
When Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, he did not intend to write what is undoubtedly his most personal book.
But upon discovering how these remarkable substances are improving the lives not only of the mentally ill but also of healthy people coming to grips with the challenges of everyday life, he decided to explore the landscape of the mind in the first person as well as the third.
Thus began a singular adventure into various altered states of consciousness. As well as a dive deep into both the latest brain science and the thriving underground community of psychedelic therapists.
9. This Is Your Mind On Plants
Michael Pollan dives deep into three plant drugs — opium, caffeine, and mescaline — and throws the fundamental strangeness, and arbitrariness, of our thinking about them into sharp relief. Exploring and participating in the cultures that have grown up around these drugs while consuming (or, in the case of caffeine, trying not to consume) them, Pollan reckons with the powerful human attraction to psychoactive plants.
Why do we go to such great lengths to seek these shifts in consciousness, and why do we fence that universal desire with laws and customs and fraught feelings?
If you have ever found yourself curious about the relationship between society and nature or society and food, then you will absolutely want to read the Michael Pollan books. He approaches his questions with an inquisitive and open mind before relaying his findings in a way that is humorous and easy to understand.