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John McPhee: Oranges

First published in the 1960s, Oranges by twice Pulitzer winning journalist, John McPhee got a limited lease of life back in 2000 when Penguin reissued it as a modern classic. And while it’s an interesting little book covering pretty much everything to do with oranges, the reportage within doesn’t so much as ground the book in its time than date it.

You may think that there is not much to say about fruit in general, never mind being specific. But that’s where you’d be wrong as, it turns out, the orange has a catalogue of facts literally bursting with juicy trivia. It begins with uses for the fruit around the world, covering methods of eating, seasoning, and even cleaning the floor and removing grease. It explores the etymology of both the fruit’s name, and it’s scientific name, Citrus Sinensis. Along the way, as it spouts nugget of information in quick succession, we see the orange in history as it began its two thousand year westward journey from China to the Americas until orange growing and juicing became a worldwide industry within itself.

Splitting up chapters of trivia, McPhee shares the outcomes of his meetings with orange barons, orange growers, and other assorted industry types. While interesting to read, the text is littered with anecdotes containing names that will mean nothing to anyone other than their immediate families. And, to top it off, there is a section whereby we learn of new methods being introduced to improve the industry that, even if you have no experience of it, you know has long since been superceded by methods. It doesn’t take a genius to know that in a world rife with technology and technological gains, that the huge workforce mentioned in Oranges has long since been made redundant or replaced by immigrant workers.

McPhee’s style is immensely readable, the way he dances from fact to fact a delight to read, and when he injects some humour to his catalogue of orange facts, you can’t help but raise a smile – at the joke and in appreciation of its wording. His anecdotes do drag, and I think it wouldn’t be uncommon to breath a sigh of relief once they conclude.

It’s a quick read and a quirky subject, and McPhee’s research is to be commended, although much of the journalistic writing –reading it forty years on from publication – has soured. That said, if you know nothing of the orange industry – and oranges in general – then Oranges is a fun little book that should quench that specific hole in your trivia.

May 31, 2007

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