John McPhee, Oranges

John McPhee, everybody: just go read some John McPhee, because it'll be time better spent than almost any other way I can think of.

Nonfiction doesn't get much better than this, as long as your tastes don't run toward celebrity (horrors!) or self-help (lord no!). McPhee has published more than 30 books in his career, about subjects ranging from a kind of fish called the shad to the Swiss Army, from experimental aircraft to medical practitioners, and invariably these books are engaging, personable, and nerdy, in the very best sense. His third volume, 1967's Oranges, just has to be one of the best, or I'm never going to be able to find time for other authors.

A short account of the book is simply that in 1965, McPhee found himself wondering why orange juice in New York didn't always taste the same. The New Yorker agreed to an article on the subject, but in true McPhee fashion, he ended up collecting vast troves of material, and after two New Yorker articles only scratched the surface, a book was the only logical outcome.
Linked from the Tampa Bay Times

(I shudder to think at the vast bloggy ecosystem that McPhee would now be responsible for having generated, had be been born a half-century further on. Genuinely, I worry about such writers I'll never be able to enjoy in the same way, as I'll never encounter their work in a form that encourages climbing inside the material, the way a book does.)

Oranges is full of trivia, often arranged in catalogue form, and I found it kind of delightful to be swamped in context-free minutiae about citrus: "A pile of green oranges will turn orange if stored in a room with enough bananas" (p.113), for example, or "Sir Francis Drake levelled the orange trees of St. Augustine [Florida] when he sacked the town in 1586, but the stumps put out new shoots and eventually bore fruit again. Nearly all were Bitter Oranges" (p.89). At one point McPhee lists 23 different pests or infestations that orchardists need to guard against, ending drily with "to name a few" (p.41). I always find McPhee's fascination infectious, and never more so than I did here.

Really, this book offers a window onto the citrus-related human history, including the weird biology of taste; onto the mores of 1960s food production and consumption; and onto the idiosyncratic characters that McPhee has spent a career finding himself in the company of -- characters that most of us imagine, rather than meet. There's something here for everyone, if you don't mind a world full of oranges.

Highly recommended (and with Christmas coming, too!).

(Further testimony to my John McPhee addiction can be found here, here, and here, so far. A newspaper commentary on the book's genesis and development can be found at the Orlando Sentinel.)


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