Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World


by Dan Koeppel

published 2008

So I’ll admit that I’m a lazy reader.  I prefer to read fun, frivolous fiction over studious non-fiction.  But I still try to keep a non-fiction book going as well (actually, I’m reading One Summer: America 1927 right now, and it’s brilliant).  A while back, I asked my followers if any of them had any suggestions for books about Central America (I’m still totally looking for good books about that region, by the way, so let me know if you know of any!).  Someone suggested reading Banana.  I’m always up for books about random topics, so I checked it out.

Koeppel is pretty passionate about bananas.  Even though he wasn’t at all trying to be funny, there were times that I found myself snickering because just – this dude LOVES BANANAS.  And you can tell that he’s surprised at how much he likes them.  He read an article about the banana blight in 2003, and then pitched the idea of writing a more in-depth article for Popular Science.  While traveling to do the research for that article, he found himself completely enthralled by the culture and – dare I say? – mystery that surrounds the banana.

The banana is truly an amazing fruit, and it provides sustenance for many people throughout the world.  While most of us who live in areas where bananas don’t grow naturally are only familiar with one type of banana, there are actually all sorts of varieties with different flavors and textures.  Koeppel takes us through the history of the banana and the banana industry, the basic physical properties of the banana, and problems facing the banana today.  (Okay, let’s face it, while I’m not a huge fan of bananas, I LOVE the word banana, and I really like to think about all of you reading this article and having to say “banana” repeatedly as you do.  It’s such a funny word!  BANANA!)  He does a fairly good job of keeping some of these more complex topics readable, and I actually found myself being sucked in to Koeppel’s banana passion, and I don’t even like bananas.

I think that his ability to make complicated topics a little more relatable really helped this book flow.  For instance:

Understanding genetic modification … [means we must] imagine that chromosomes are an old-fashioned film reel – the kind that used to jam up the projectors in … biology class.  The film wrapped around the reel is made up of individual frames.  If the frames are genes, then creating a [genetically modified organism] involves splicing the genes from one movie, perhaps Gone with the Wind, into another – let’s say Star Wars.  The result is something that should contain the best qualities of both:  Rhett Butler played by Harrison Ford and Scarlet O’Hara with a cinnamon-bun hairstyle.

Simplified?  Absolutely.  But does it make genetic modification slightly easier to grasp?  Yes.  And genetic modification is a huge part of the banana’s past and its future.

In truth, things are looking rather grim for the banana.  Our banana is very specific – every one ripens in the same amount of days for starters – and that banana is suffering from a blight that could actually wipe out the world’s banana production if a new strain of banana isn’t created soon.  While Koeppel isn’t a doomsdayer, he does have strong words about the potential fate of the banana, and the impact that fate will have on much of the world.

If you’re like me and you enjoy books on random topics, or if you really just bananas (or even just the word banana), Banana is well worth a read.