Table Of Contents, by John McPhee
Like many of the author’s books, this happens to be a collection of essays (one of them very lengthy) from the author’s writing. The essays are miscellaneous, but if you have read and enjoyed the author’s work before you will find a great deal here to enjoy. Even if one doesn’t agree with all of the people that the author talks to or their approaches, and even if one has a fair amount of difference with the author as well, there is enough charm and graciousness here that there is always something to appreciate about McPhee’s travels and his winsome descriptions of his conversations with others. There is certainly nothing particularly essential about this book and its contents, but it is a pleasant collection and one that has in common with the author’s work an enjoyable attitude, making it a good way to spend some time. There are, after all, a great many worse ways to spend time than to spend it with an author like McPhee, who has a lot to say and says it well, and says some things that are at least thought provoking in a good way even where they turn out to be not as prophetic as the author would hope.
The first three essays in this 300 page collection are united by the author’s interest in bears. In “Under The Snow” the author takes a look at hibernating bears and finds reminders of his own daughter. In “A Textbook Place For Bears” and “Riding The Boom Extension” he examines the expansion of the habitat of bears from Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains to New Jersey, where he happens to live. The longest essay in the collection is “Heirs Of General Practice,” which examines some family practitioners in rural Maine and notes their attempts at providing a generalist approach to health care that would be overwhelmed by tests and specialists with increasing healthcare costs in future decades. After that there is a short essay about spending a day with Bill Bradley in “Open Man,” an essay on the genius of Theodore Taylor in “Ice Pond,” and a brief discussion of miniature hyrdoelectricity efforts in “Minihydro.” But for my own personal tastes, the best essay in this collection is the last one, “North Of the C.P. Line,” which is a tale straight of Philip Roth where the author meets his doppelganger, a Maine writer of the same name, who looks like some of the author’s relatives, and who happens to be a writer himself.
The author is at his best, as usual, when he writes about people and allows them to speak and shows his own tolerant willingness to deal with them at face value. There are poignant moments here where the author’s discussion of bears allows him to ponder his own family. The only essays that work less well are those where the author attempts to write about politics and portrays some of his own opinions and beliefs in his choice of subject. In his sprawling essay on some of Maine’s family practitioners, he misses the key role that increasing costs would play in the future of health care, and focuses his attention on the doctors (probably because they are a more sympathetic centerpiece) rather than on the beancounters in the insurance companies whose desire to control costs would be more decisive. Likewise, in his discussion of minihydro efforts, he spends a great deal of time engaging in wishful thinking about energy sources to allow for the growth of small towns and not enough time wrestling with energy monopolies and the infrastructure of electricity generation. Still, a timeline where family doctors would have been important in America’s health care and where minihydro could help preserve the independence and economic value of small towns would have been a better timeline than our own.