Big book, tiny topic

Some eccentric notes on a favorite tactic of the publishing industry

REVIEW This week, I'm reviewing a book about toothpicks, a book about citrus, and a book about pigeons. When I first mentioned this plan to a fellow editor, she said it prompted visions of a surrealist game of Clue: the orange stabbed the pigeon in the study with a toothpick.

In truth, my motivation is pragmatic. I want to draw attention to the publishing industry's love of big books devoted to tiny topics. It seems that one surefire way of selling a nonfiction tome is by focusing on a very specific subject. For evidence, one need only look at recent efforts such as Pierre Laszlo's Citrus: A History (University of Chicago Press, 252 pages, $25), Henry Petroski's The Toothpick: Technology and Culture (Knopf, 443 pages, $27.95), and Andrew D. Blechman's Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird (Grove Press, 239 pages, $24).

Without snappy cover art and a colon followed by a subtitle, these books would be ready for inclusion in the next edition of Russell Ash and Brian Lake's Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities (Harper Perennial, 224 pages, $14.95), a collection devoted to ridiculous and arcane tomes. Today, the colon (note that Ash and Lake's book also sports one) is a way for author and publisher to assert an awareness of the potential absurdity that might arise from inscribing a world history on the head of a pin — or the tip of a toothpick.

Which brings us to The Toothpick. It's the latest endeavor by a writer who specializes in large books on tiny topics. Petroski's previous lengthy portrait in words was devoted to the toothpick's cousin of sorts, the pencil. He brings an ease born from familiarity to his latest project. He also brings an anti-Wikipedia agenda, beginning his toothpick odyssey with a collection of false "stuff rustled up from the wild, wild Web." In the United States, the toothpick does have ties to Charles Forster — as claimed by and other Web sites — but Forster did not "invent" it, as one online source of misinformation states. If you read The Toothpick, you'll learn about Forster and about Benjamin Sturtevant, a contemporary who has been erased from the toothpick's United States–origin myth. Neither Forster nor Sturtevant are the most fascinating men ever to have probed their gums.

The point of Petroski's toothpick testament is sharpest when he uses his small subject to touch upon ideas from different eras and cultures. Thus, before Forster and his Charles Foster Kane–like name (though not, alas, story) take over, The Toothpick cites a long passage from James Joyce's 1916 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that cries out for a toothpick, provides illustrations of Chinese toothpicks that look like chandeliers, and notes that the Renaissance was "the golden age of toothpicks." Perhaps literally — there are golden toothpicks, as well as ones made from walrus whiskers.

As its title might suggest, Laszlo's Citrus: A History presents a fruit-centric — though by no means fruitopian — history of the world. Via the erudite Laszlo, the travels of an orange can blossom into a discussion of religious persecution. Laszlo is a retired professor of chemistry, and his prose presents a mix of stuffiness and frolic, whether imagining a correspondence with the first person ever to write a book about citrus (an 11th-century Chinese governor named Han Yen-Chih), randomly leaping from a descriptive passage into a recipe, or redundantly telling the reader that he is about to tell a story.

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