This blog is threatening to turn into Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, Social Science, and Literature Criticism, but I’m just going to go with the conversational flow, so here’s another post about an essayist.
I’m not a big fan of Janet Malcolm’s essays — and I don’t mean I don’t like her attitude or her pro-murderer attitude, I mean I don’t like them all that much as writing. They’re fine, I read them, they don’t bore me, but I certainly don’t think she’s “our” best essayist. But that’s not a debate I want to have right now, and if I did I’m quite sure most of you wouldn’t want to read it anyway. So instead, I’ll just say something about John McPhee.
As all right-thinking people agree, in McPhee’s long career he has written two kinds of books: good, short books, and bad, long books. (He has also written many New Yorker essays, and perhaps other essays for other magazines too; most of these are good, although I haven’t seen any really good recent work from him, and some of it has been really bad, by his standards). But…
I recently picked up “Oranges,” a McPhee book originally published in 1966 that I hadn’t read yet, and since it’s short (149 pages) I knew it would be good. The book is about oranges. Unlike some of Andrew’s favorite Janet Malcolm essays, and unlike many of my favorite micro-history books (“Cod” by Mark Kurlansky, for example), “Oranges” does not use its subject as a home base from which it explores all kinds of other issues. It is about oranges: their history, biology, irrigation, harvest, economics, etc.
I will now open the book haphazardly and choose my favorite paragraph from the page I land on. Here goes:
It is difficult, though, to walk in the groves, because you sink to your shins in sand. All of Florida was under water fifty million years ago, and the Ridge is the remains of a string of submarine hills. Clay and limestone are under the sand, but the sand is about twenty feet deep. There are traces of phosphate in it and occasional suggestions of organic matter, but it would be a scandalous exaggeration to call it sandy soil. It has the texture and porosity of a beach, and feels exactly the same underfoot. “It’s kind of a hydroponic deal,” Mathias explained to me during the course of a day that I spent riding around with him from grove to grove. “The sand holds up the trees, and we do the rest.”
In fact, that is only part of a paragraph, but you get the idea. Or maybe you don’t, so I’ll do it again, from another haphazardly selected page.
An orange grown in Florida usually has a thin and tightly fitting skin, and it is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a ten-ton truck and not even wet the pavement. The differences from which these hyperboles arise will prevail in the two states even if the type of orange is the same. In arid climates, like California’s, oranges develop a thick albedo, which is the white part of the skin. Florida is one of the two or three most rained-upon states in the United States. California uses the Colorado River and similarly impressive sources to irrigate its oranges, but of course irrigation can only do so much. The annual difference in rainfall between the Florida and California orange-growing areas is one million one hundred and forty thousand gallons per acre. For years, California was the leading orange state, but Florida surpassed California in 1942, and grows three times as many oranges now. California oranges, for their part, can safely be called three times as beautiful.
Here’s the biggest departure I have noted from the topic of oranges:
[Orange researcher] Grierson is a trim and well-groomed man in his late forties, with brown hair and a modest mustache. He is in the habit, rare in Florida, of working right through the lunch hour every day, pausing only, while eating a sandwich at his desk, to leaf through the telephone directory in search of unusual names, a daily amusement. The day I met him, he was beside himself with pleasure after discovering Verbal Funderburk.
(That’s a fine, New Yorkerish paragraph, that could just as easily have been written by Mark Singer.)
Anyway, with pretty much that sole exception, the book is about oranges. I recommend it.