Very early in my reading life, I discovered a fundamental truth about good books. There is no such thing as a boring topic. Yes, boring writers do exist, and they should be avoided at all costs. Life is too short to waste on them. However, talented writers can hold a reader’s attention no matter the subject.
This was proven to me by John McPhee, to my mind one of the great nonfiction writers of all time. He once wrote an entire book about oranges. That, in fact, is the name of the book: Oranges. To which the average person would no doubt ask, “Why in the world would I read an entire book about oranges?”
Well, that is the wrong question. It is not just any random fruit-based book. It is a book created by a unique talent who will not only inform you about the orange but also teach you a new way of looking at the world, a new way of shaping your focus and attention.
Focus and attention: those are the two key words. You can find histories of the world that fill a few hundred pages of a surprisingly thin book. You can also find histories of single battles, a few days in a specific armed conflict, that require several volumes. Indeed, you could fill a library with all the books about the Battle of Gettysburg even though that event is but one battle in one war for one nation. It is three days from 10,000 years or so of recorded human history. It is all about focus and attention.
With that in mind, I took a brief tour of the Dillsburg Library’s nonfiction shelves. I went searching for books that might be described as oddly specific. That does not mean they are automatically odd, and it certainly does not denigrate them. These are the sort of books about which you say, “Wow, I can’t believe somebody wrote a whole book about this.” But then, after you spend some time with the book, your reaction changes: “Of course, there is a whole book about this; there has to be!”
The following is a small sample of what I found:
1.) Apples of Uncommon Character by Rowan Jacobsen. In the spirit of McPhee’s Oranges, I begin the list with a fruit book. The book is exactly as the title says: a tour of 123 different varieties of apples. You get photos and descriptions, just like any other field guide for animals or plants. Naturally, I gravitated to one of the final chapters called “oddballs” where I read of the Hidden Rose, the Knobbed Russet and the Sheepnose. Ah, the Sheepnose – “like sinking your teeth into an old baked potato” says Jacobsen. Jacobsen offers just 20 recipes because this is not a cookbook. This is about the apples, not about cooking them.
2.) Chowderland by Brooke Dojny. Cookbooks offer a great example of how focus and attention work to shape a book. Some cookbooks cover the creation of multiple feasts while others focus on specific dishes or specific styles of cuisine. Thus, you can find How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, or conversely you can find a book that concentrates exclusively on, say, chocolate cakes. For this list, I selected a book that focuses on a specific kind of soup., the chowder of Chowderland. Alas, I am unable to provide a useful definition. It appears to be mostly seafood and potatoes but also, well, just about anything. Even so, the limits of chowder tested the author. Only about half of the book’s 135 pages is devoted to chowder while the rest goes to various side dishes.
3.) The Home Blacksmith by Ryan Ridgway. Hobbies, almost by definition, are oddly specific. If you are not into, say, model trains, then quite obviously a book about model trains will seem a tad outside the norm. It therefore goes without saying that a book about at least one hobby makes this list. I chose what, in my opinion, seemed like the hobby least likely to be practiced: blacksmithing. Turns out, in spite of the specialized nature of this hobby, it is most interesting indeed. Did you happen to know, for example, that an anvil has individual parts, a specific anatomy complete with its own terminology? Or that anvils, especially antique models, are measured according to the hundredweight system? (A hundredweight equals 112 pounds. No, I do not know why.) And did you further know that when one goes shopping for anvils that there are certain qualities one needs to consider? And this is just the anvil part of blacksmithing! There is a whole assortment of tools and techniques to master. Plus, it is an actually useful hobby in that the practitioner can make and fix things. This is a prime example of an oddly specific book not being all that odd. I can easily imagine a local area farmer acquiring these skills and making regular use of them.
4.) Making Poor Man’s Guitars by Shane Speal. This is another book that, at first glance, appears to be the easy butt of a joke. It is a step-by-step guide on manufacturing musical instruments from junk. The three-string cigar box guitar figures prominently. Another guitar has a resonator made from the lid of a paint can. There is a banjo made of a frying pan. Also, there is a stringed instrument of some sort – I guess we will call it a guitar — made from a mailbox. Ha ha! A mailbox! The thing is, these instruments look sort of cool. They are folk art. Indeed they are folk art with a history and that history is explained here. Believe me, my inclination is to make a joke if one suggests itself, and a frying pan banjo is more than suggestion. Okay, so consider the humor but also consider that this book is going to be much better and much more interesting than you could have imagined.
5.) 100 Weird Ways to Catch Fish by John Waldman. Among said ways: klonking, skishing, slating and vingling. My spellcheck hates them all. Others are a little easier to spell but harder to contemplate. Waldman suggests a method using gas balloons and a casting technique involving what appears to be a large slingshot. Both high voltage and high explosives are tools for the more adventurous angler, tools that I urge no one at all to use in real life not only for personal safety but for the sake of preventing cruelty to animals. In fact, of all the “weird ways” discussed in this book, a crucial one is missing, the technique of using “fishing” as an excuse to take a nap along a stream on a warm afternoon.
6.) Brolliology by Marion Rankine. The subtitle of this book says it all: “A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature.” Rankine tells us “This is a book that will never –could never – be complete.” Yes, the history of umbrellas is so vast as to be infinite. Turns out, that this is true in spirit if not in fact. Consider, if you will, Mary Poppins who simply must carry her umbrella. If you are more of a film snob, then consider French comic director Jacques Tati who, again, must have an umbrella. In the 1880s, Georges Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with umbrellas all over the place. All of which is to say nothing about the umbrella v. parasol kerfuffle. At a well-illustrated 160 + pages including a sizable list of sources, one does indeed get the idea that Rankine has barely touched the surface of a topic you had no idea could be interesting.