Book Review: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan burst into my awareness with his brilliant recent book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In reading about the author of this amazing study, I discovered that he had written an earlier book about the process of building a writer’s study in the backyard of his house in Connecticut. Although not as ambitious or important as How to Change Your Mind, this volume appealed to me as an example of a recurrent daydream of my own.

For the last six or seven years, since I moved back to the United States from Greece with some of my sons, I have been renting places to live and filling them with inexpensive furniture, mainly gifts from relatives or whatever we could pick up from Craigslist. We’ve been living in our current apartment in Seattle for about four years. I have no complains with it; it’s in a nice quiet neighborhood conducive to walks to clear the mind between bouts of writing, and there’s a good high school nearby for my son. But lately I find myself daydreaming from time to time about a place of my own. As I go through my daily paces, stretching my legs and gulping in fresh air, I envision what sort of house I would purchase if I had the money, what type of land it would sit on, and where geographically it would be located. Would I want a single-story spread-out layout or a multi-story edifice? How many bedrooms would it have? What sort of view? How would I furnish it?

Sometimes, though, I see my dream home in no fixed location. That’s because I sometimes also envision having a comfortable camper van to live in, a mobile dwelling in which I would be free to travel. Usually I come up with an ideal solution that is a blend of the two visions: a modest house with enough extra rooms so that my sons can feel free to visit, some property with plenty of greenery surrounding it, and a place to park the camper van so I can rest up between road adventures.

Yes, so I can get behind Pollan’s vision of the architecture of daydreams; that is, using construction materials to give fixed shape to the thoughts in my head. In Pollan’s case, he decided to construct a one-room shack up in the woods behind his house where he could work on his writing. A Place of My Own is a memoir of how he brought his idea from architect’s drawing to finished building. The construction of a tiny room such as Pollan had in mind is not much material with which to fill a three hundred page book; as you can expect, he deviates a lot into the history, theories, and philosophies of architecture. He also meticulously chronicles every detail of his building’s construction from the choosing of the right site to the selection of wood. To be honest, I think he goes a little overboard with the long detailed descriptions of obscure architectural ideas; my eyes glazed over sometimes and I wanted certain sections of the book to end. But it’s like if you are taking a long walk: some parts of the scenery are going to interest you more than others.

Pollan and the architect that he hired planned his building meticulously, but as a writer, as I read the description I questioned whether I would be happy working in a place similar to what Pollan had in mind. I have one strong objection. He did not plan a bathroom in his structure. I would find that intolerable. I try to hydrate as I write, and as a result I have to take pee breaks often. It would be terribly inconvenient to run down to the house every time I had to go. And the weather in winter is extreme in Connecticut, where Pollan built his humble edifice. In good weather, sure, I could take a short walk into the surrounding woods and water a tree – but what if there’s a foot of snow on the ground or it’s pouring rain? Or what if nature calls in a different way? No, if I were to go to all the trouble to build myself a writer’s studio apart from my living space, I would definitely include a toilet.

Other than that, Pollan’s place sounds cozy and inspiring and conducive to getting work done. I would love a space like that to write in – although I have to admit, for myself personally, I would be just as happy to have a writing room right in my house – I don’t really have the need to divorce it completely from my living quarters.

In closing, I would say that this book is absorbing and interesting, apart from those few sections of obscure detail that I mentioned earlier, and I would recommend it if, like me, you enjoy envisioning the possibilities of your dreams.

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