An Introduction to Plant Breeding. Jack Brown and Peter Caligari. 2008. Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK. 209 p. $69.00, paperback. ISBN: 978-1-4051-3344-9.
I really wanted to like this book. Well-written books on plant breeding are few and far between – books giving a balanced account of the principles and methods being used by practical plant breeders, working in the trenches of day-to-day cultivar development and release. The detailed index of the book gave hope that it would be comprehensive, well-balanced, and well-organized. The back cover states: “An Introduction to Plant Breeding has been carefully compiled by the authors, who have between them many years' experience as plant breeders, and as teachers of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in plant sciences and plant breeding. This important publication provides comprehensive coverage of the whole area of plant breeding. Subjects covered include: modes of reproduction in plants, breeding objectives and schemes, genetics, predictions, selection, alternative techniques, and practical considerations. Each chapter is carefully laid out in a student-friendly way and includes questions for the reader.”
You will see later that I question several of these claims, but I will first continue with what I liked about this book.
I like the way the book is printed and laid out on the page. It reminds me of my favorite plant breeding book, N.W. Simmonds' Principles of Crop Improvement, Longmans, 1979. There are lots of lists, short tables, flow charts, and other features that break the topics into small blocks of information that help the reader stay focused. I like the two-column layout, the type, the size and shape of the book and the way it feels in my hand. A few parts of the book are clear and interesting, for example, “Outline of a potato breeding scheme” on page 54 and all of chapter 8 (Alternative Techniques in Plant Breeding), which discusses induced mutations, interspecific and intergeneric hybridization, haploidy, plant transformation, and the use of molecular markers in plant breeding.
For me, the potential usefulness of this book was almost entirely undermined by problems that could have rather easily been corrected. The book appears to have had no editor, and it appears that nobody read or corrected the page proofs. The text is strewn with examples of wrong or confusing punctuation, poor word choice, contradictions, and other sources of confusion. I could here cite 50 or 100 examples, but the abused reader will discover them soon enough. With careful writing, all the material in this book could have been presented in a way that would have reduced my reading time by 50% or more and greatly improved my comprehension, not by reducing the length of the text, but by organizing the material and by making each sentence clear. Often, while studying the book, I wondered whether I was losing my ability to read and understand text (on page 64, column 1, bottom chart: where did the C alleles come from?; in the chart on page 124, column 2, is the second “year 1” supposed to be “year 2”?, etc.).
It is clear that the authors have had much experience in plant breeding, and this experience is the basis of much of what is valuable in this book. Nonetheless, they make a few surprising assertions. On page 8 we read: “Yield increases of more than 100% have been found between single cross maize cultivars over the traditional homozygous cultivars.” Traditional maize cultivars have never been homozygous – they were open-pollinated heterozygous populations. There are other statements and ideas with which readers will disagree, but in general, most of the information in the book is sound and useful, if a reader has the patience to sort through the words and sentences to find the ideas.
On first reading the title of the book: An Introduction to Plant Breeding, I feared that it might be a superficial, watered-down retelling of basic information. This was definitely not the case. However, I would never recommend the book to a beginning student. It is hard to read, uses advanced technical terms long before it defines them, and conveys little of the excitement that might make a student want to enter the profession. The beauty, power, and simplicity of plant breeding do not come through in this book. As a seasoned plant breeder, I found useful and interesting information in every chapter but was totally frustrated by the writing. I wish a new and carefully edited edition of this book could immediately be made available, or at least that a list of corrections could be prepared and sent electronically to everyone who buys this book.