Some eccentric notes on a favorite tactic of the publishing industry
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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 answers.com 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 Statesorigin 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 Kanelike 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. Ultimately, Citrus does have the passion if not always the juice of a labor of love, even when its author favors the kind of obvious symbolism found in this sentence.
In comparison, Pigeons author Blechman is a storyteller who has a way with a hilarious turn of phrase. He writes of "backyard geneticists" who create birds "more akin to a Dresden figurine than a child of nature," notes that the pigeon "has been prized as a source of companionship (and protein)," and confesses his fondness for the Frillback, a breed with feathers that look like they "were dipped in Jheri Curl." Over the course of one winter, he meets as many breeds of pigeon obsessives as he does pigeons. The wildest marriage might be between Parlor Rollers and their owners. Parlor Rollers somersault backward up to 600 feet in a single effort, a display that Blechman deems "the avian equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder." When Blechman asks one owner why the birds do what they do, the man replies, "Because they're retarded, that's why."
Actually, Pigeons makes a strong case for recognizing and respecting the oft-abused pigeon, a case drawn from no less a source than Charles Darwin's 1859 On the Origin of Species. Blechman's book contains some disturbing passages (especially a foray into a Pennsylvania town that made bird slaughter into an annual holiday replete with teen boys delivering body slams) and no shortage of funny adventures. By the end, it transformed the way I view pigeons. Though I'm a vampire for blood oranges and I abuse toothpicks like an addict smokes cigarettes, I'm afraid the other two books didn't have quite the same impact.