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An introduction to plant structure and development. Plant anatomy for the Twenty-first Century Beck Charles B. 2010. Cambridge University Press. £45 (hardback). pp. 464.
The 1st edition of An introduction to plant structure and development (Beck, 2005; hereafter referred to as ‘Beck, 1e’) was reviewed in this journal by Peterson (2006), where it was welcomed as ‘the best book on the subject of plant anatomy since the texts of Esau’. This is a claim that has been seized upon shamelessly by the publishers because that ‘sound bite’ is proudly displayed on the back cover of the 2nd edition (hereafter referred to as ‘Beck, 2e’). Well, how does Beck, 2e, fare in that regard? A good question. And Beck, 2e, raises other good and pertinent questions. Intriguingly, Beck, 2e's ‘Plant Anatomy for the Twenty-first Century’ sub-title is also used in Beck, 1e, but only inside that book, not ‘in your face’ on the front cover as for Beck, 2e. Is its promotion to the front cover a mere marketing ploy implying Beck, 2e, is a markedly different text to Beck, 1e? Or is Beck, 2e, really a 21st Century text in ways that perhaps Beck, 1e, wasn't? Is Beck, 2e, a genuine attempt to give plant anatomy a make-over for a new age and a new generation of students, by combining anatomy with development? Perhaps even more fundamental than that: do we need another plant anatomy text? In particular, do we need a 2nd edition of one that only appeared in its 1st edition a mere half-a-decade previously (Beck, 2005)? Is plant anatomy such a fast-moving branch of botany that this is warranted?
Well, I think the answer to that latter question is a guarded, ‘probably’. After all, for years many of us ‘botanists’ have been moaning on about how there is a pressing need to integrate the modern, slightly ethereal, molecular-biology-dominated developmental studies with the much more concrete and tangible anatomical side of things. Well, Beck is trying to do just that. Does he achieve it? How justified is the claim that in Beck, 2e, ‘areas expanded and/or upgraded include the structure and function of the cytoskeleton … the role of auxin and other hormones in development of tracheary elements, as well as in cambial activity and tissue patterning, and the role of PIN proteins in the movement of auxin from cell to cell by auxin efflux transporters’ (page xiii of Preface to Beck, 2e)? A good way to check is to look at the up-to-dateness of cited references by their year of publication, which reveals the following: 2004 (approx. 15 references); 2005 (year of publication of Beck, 1e: 3); 2006 (approx. 10); 2007 (approx. 4); 2008 (approx. 10); 2009 (0), and 2010 (0). Certainly, there are plenty of mentions of cytoskeleton and PIN proteins in relevant parts of the text, but with only approx. 24 references ‘post-Beck, 1e’ that claim looks a little ‘thin’ and unconvincing.
Additionally, we seem to be currently awash with dedicated plant anatomy textbooks and CDs/DVDs (and not forgetting the chapters on this topic in ‘standard’ plant biology/botany texts): Perry and Morton (1998), Dickison (2000), Crang and Vassilyev (2003), Evert (2006), Rudall (2007), Bowes and Mauseth (2008), Cutler et al. (2008), and Gunning (2009). By virtue of the subject matter most cover similar ground, but each tends to have or do something better than or differently to its competitors. In that regard, Beck, 2e, does what it says it does: it covers a pretty full range of plant anatomy, in a single textbook that is not over-large. It is well supplied with references and indications of further reading. It is lavishly illustrated (and generally – Fig. 14·5 is an exception – all but diagrams have indications of magnification), but they are all black-and-white. And therein lies my main problem with this tome. If the book is serious about marrying anatomy with development couldn't we have some colour images to show the distribution of PIN proteins, or to display some aspects of cytoskeleton structure/function/arrangement, or generally to illustrate the breakthroughs in understanding development and anatomy that are coming from such techniques as immunofluorescence or use of fluorescent reporter genes? Black-and-white is fine, but to me it looks more ‘worthy’ and staid (and – unfortunately – therefore ‘old-fashioned’) than modern and exciting – and 21st Century. Glorious colour would really show off what can be achieved if development is united with anatomy in a lasting, exciting, vibrant relationship rather than a more lacklustre, grey, shotgun-like ‘marriage of convenience’. If Beck, 2e, really wants to work as ‘an introduction to many of the exciting, contemporary areas at the forefront of research, especially those areas concerning development of plant structure’ [page i], and if – as the back cover states – the book is to stimulate students to become leaders in teaching and research in plant anatomy, I think it will have to embrace colour. Maybe a companion website could be exploited for this?
On balance, I don't think Beck, 2e is much better – but is certainly not much worse – than the competing texts/CDs/DVDs (or even the mountain of material that is available – and usually freely so – nowadays on the internet). So, I'm going to sit on the fence as far as Beck, 2e, is concerned. Interested readers will have to decide for themselves if this book is for them. If you have Beck, 1e, you may want to wait a bit longer before ‘upgrading’ to Beck, 2e (or any future planned editions). If you don't have Beck, 1e, and purely in the interests of impartiality and inviting the purchaser to chose, you might care to glance through the book on line at www.books.google.com, where it seems to be readable in its entirety, for free. Or – and in no way am I or the Annals of Botany sanctioning or condoning this – you might want to visit www.ebookee.org, which, apparently, allows you to download a PDF version of the book, for free (presumably so you can view it at your leisure and destroy the file when you invest in the physical copy of the text). Finally, you might want to be swayed by the review in Amazon (www.amazon.com), where a ‘Megan Mccullough’ (of Blacksburg, Virginia, USA) states that ‘This book saves my life on a regular basis’. A life-saving plant anatomy text? The ‘best book on the subject of plant anatomy since the texts of Esau’? Over to you, dear potential reader!