Ski Poles and Baby Doctors

As essayists go, John McPhee has be come something of a celebrity. He has been praised in places as diverse as National Review and National Public Radio; he has written 18 books and no telling how many articles; moreover, he is said to be the best thing The New Yorker, in its decrepitude, has going for it. From the interview on NPR, he seems to be a likable man and a talented writer capable of turning out essays on subjects as far apart as politics and geology. But it is hard to know what to say about Table of Contents. There is much to admire in McPhee's meticulous reporting and amusing style (after all, it's not every writer who can compare himself carrying a pair of skis and poles to "a walling swastika" and make it work). At the same time, I finished the book wishing that it had ended about 100 pages earlier. Two essays, "Heirs of General Practice" and "Minihydro," though interesting in premise, become boring simply be cause McPhee does not know when to stop. Whether the problem is McPhee's too-keen powers of observation or his not-too-keen sense of what to edit, the book is too long.

There is also a faint but unpleasant odor of fashionable politics. Only one essay out of eight can be considered political ("Open Man": a day in the life of Senator Bill Bradley), but Mc Phee seems to drop little hints, now and again. For example, while discuss ing the...

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