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The Seed Catalogue: A Comparative Study - page 2

by Clement Kent, 1991


Burpee's Seeds, poster, 1901

YOU MAY WINCE at the use of the word "literature" for so degraded a product as catalogues. But, after all, wasn't Dickens serialized? Didn't Nabokov read American pulp fiction voraciously - and then transfigure its plots and characters? Pulp and popular literature is the steaming, fertile compost from which arise the radiant blooms of great writing. Seed catalogues, no less than Harlequin Romances, serve to edify and amuse a group of readers, some of whom, once they learn to love reading, may develop a taste for more challenging fare. Among gardeners, the late-winter barrage of catalogues reaches millions; some thousands of these will some day go on to read Vita Sackville-West or Gertrude Jekyll, or to create celebrated gardens of their own.

In what ways, then, may we characterize seed catalogues? What established and better known genres of literature do they imitate? What are the pleasures, and the hazards, they hold for the reader?

First, we must acknowledge the obvious: they are almost all tools of commerce. Only in the offerings of the amateur plant societies do we encounter authors whose primary intent is anything other than to sell for a profit. Unfortunately, their catalogues, while an excellent resource for rare and unusual seeds, are often dull and uninteresting. Not much more than unillustrated, alphabetized lists of Latin binomials, they have little to draw the eye and tease the brain. It is to the catalogues of the commercial type that we must turn for purple prose - as well as the violently blue rose. Commercial catalogues are primarily divided between the mass marketers and the upscale carriage-trade seedhouses and nurseries.

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t

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