McPhee, McPhee, and More McPhee

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27 April, 2008

Karen's Weekend Assignment this week asks about favorite types of books. My favorite genre at the moment is extremely specific:

John McPhee books.

A month or two ago, I started reading The Control of Nature, having seen several recommendations on Ask Metafilter. I was completely fascinated from beginning to end. I loved the clarity of his writing, the precision, his ability to explain the things he's learned so they're interesting and easy to grasp. I love his metaphors, and the way his descriptions evoke pictures in my head.

I wanted more - and fortunately, he's written a lot of books. I decided to go more or less in order, so I got The Headmaster (slightly out of order - I was using the Sort by Date function at the library website, and it put The Headmaster before A Sense of Where You Are). Reading The Headmaster, I took a little more time than I had with The Control of Nature, so I could pay attention to the structure and focus a little on how he does what he does.

At the same time, I stumbled across Looking for a Ship, which happens to be the next book after The Control of Nature, and it amused me to be reading all his books in order, starting both from the beginning and from the middle. There were a couple of moments in Looking that had perfect payoffs - the sort of thing that gives me shivers watching a Stoppard play.

Next, I read A Sense of Where You Are. I have no interest in sports, and although I know I played basketball in gym class in school, I didn't even remember that there are five players on a team (well, five on the court at a time). I figured I might not enjoy this book as much as the others I'd read, given the subject. I was wrong. I loved this book, and not just because the real subject was Bill Bradley, a fascinating, admirable young man (who became a fascinating, admirable older man as his life unfolded after the book was written). Reading about how Bradley developed his moves, disciplined himself to practice and to study, dealt with fame and pressure - it was all fascinating, and it was all beautifully told, with care, attention, sympathy, understanding, and humor.

I've just started Oranges, a book I had to special order from a neighboring library system - the San Francisco library only has one copy, and it doesn't circulate. I encouraged them to buy another copy, considering it's in print and affordable. I mean - one non-circulating copy of a John McPhee book? That doesn't make sense to me at all.

I'm looking forward to reading my way through all thirty books. I'm grateful and delighted that he's been so prolific - some of my favorite writers go years between books, and then I miss them, like an old friend you won't get to see for a long time.

. . . . .

Is "John McPhee books" too narrow to count as a genre? Perhaps. Maybe I should say my favorite category of book right now is "New Yorker-style non-fiction." In addition to McPhee, I've also recently gone on a Sue Hubbell binge, reading nearly everything of hers I could find (although I had to return Waiting for Aphrodite to the library before I could finish it). I loved A Book of Bees and A Country Year. Her writing has a lot of the qualities I love in McPhee's: clarity, elegance, vividness. She, too, has tremendous skill in capturing and portraying the people who people her books. And, like McPhee, she conveys a genuine love of, and interest in, the things she writes about.

If I can find more New Yorker-style non-fiction writers, I'll be delighted to see how wide this genre goes, and whether there are many others of the same caliber as these two. I mean to finish the McPhee first, though.

. . . . .

Choosing a second favorite genre is much harder than the first. I'm not sure I can limit myself - I might have to name several:

  • textbooks - I love high school and college level textbooks. History, art appreciation, psychology, biology, music history, philosophy, geometry, French, economics, chemistry, calculus - I have at least one or two textbooks for each of these subjects, and whenever I make time to crack one open, I learn all kinds of things I didn't know before.
  • intelligent fluff - for me, this includes Maeve Binchy and Gillian Bradshaw. I might also include Edith Wharton and Jane Austen ... which most people probably wouldn't categorize as fluff. Maybe what I mean is "entertainment," the way Michael Chabon describes it in the LA Times. It's something I can read for five minutes before I fall asleep - something not too demanding that still engages my brain and ideally has a happy ending.
  • workbooks - anything with lists of tasks is right up my alley. I recently borrowed Music Composition for Dummies from the library, and I couldn't wait to try the assignments in each chapter. (Unfortunately, I had to return that one to the library, too, so I'll actually have to wait.) Books with writing assignments, drawing assignments, and homework make me very happy.

I'm amazed that there are so many wonderful books out there (and in here - I own a ridiculous number of books myself). An hour reading, for me, is a happy hour.