I am from Orange County, Calif., where, true to its name, oranges are never in short supply. My parents are regular fixtures at Saturday morning farmers markets, from which they always return hauling a red netted bag stretched taut with oranges haphazardly bundled together. In the winter they are Navels, which shed their peels and divide into segments effortlessly, the perfect afternoon snack. In the summer, Valencias, sweet and tart and dripping with juice, guaranteed to leave your mouth and fingers sticky.
Living in Southern California, one of the two major orange suppliers in the United States (the other being, duh, Florida), they are a fruit that I’ve always taken for granted. Until I picked up John McPhee’s Oranges.
Oranges weaves a rich tapestry that encompasses every aspect of the humble citrus fruit. McPhee delves into the different varieties of oranges, sure, but also the people whose livelihoods are bound up in their production: orange growers, orange pickers, orange packers, orange botanists, orange barons. He chronicles the history of oranges, of how they were introduced to the Western Hemisphere by Christopher Columbus himself; he lists common pests that feed on orange groves, including, but not limited to, white flies, white-fly fungi, aphids, plant bugs, orange-dog caterpillars, Mediterranean fruit flies, yellow scales, black scales, purple scales, Florida wax scales, Florida red scales, snow scales, dictyospermum scales, chaff scales, melanose and citrus scab; he clarifies what orange juice “from concentrate” really means. I’ve never bought into supermarket OJ, preferring my juice freshly squeezed, and McPhee’s description of how concentrate plants vacuum-evaporate oranges within an inch of their life, before dumping in loads of chemical flavorings like d-limonene, only reinforced my inclinations.
Meticulously researched and methodically recounted, Oranges is a celebration of the banal, a deep probe into the mundanities of everyday life. “Sonder” is the realization that “each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Yet to be coined is a word to describe the epiphany that not only do the people surrounding us possess infinite stories, but so do the objects: the shampoo bottle, the tape dispenser, the empty Fritos bag crumpled on the side of the freeway. It is a revelation I am still reeling from. Everything harbors a latent origin story as elaborate and involved as yours or mine, but lacks the means to relay them; to uncover them, we must rely on journalists like McPhee.
The brilliant mind behind Oranges, John McPhee, is one of my favorite authors and generally my all-around idol. A pioneer of the creative nonfiction genre, McPhee has contributed more than 100 pieces to The New Yorker and teaches journalism at Princeton. Recently, New York Magazine ran a profile on him in which he describes himself as “shy to the point of dread,” yet the writer gets the sense that his friends and family “had all been waiting, respectfully, for decades for the chance to gush about him in public.”
As someone whose most ardent desire is to become a staff writer at The New Yorker, to see my name in Irvin typeface accompanied by an adorable vector portrait, McPhee is everything I aspire to be both personally and professionally.
McPhee has written other stellar books, about his backpacking trips into the Alaskan wilderness and voyages in a merchant ship down the coast of South America, but Oranges remains my favorite, because it focuses on the micro rather than the macro. It is trumpeted as the epitome of factual, thorough reporting that still remains stylish, witty and engaging.
Half a century after its publication in 1967, it remains in a league of its own. To compare Oranges to any other lesser work would be like comparing apples to, well, oranges.
Kitty Guo is a sophomore majoring in journalism and computational linguistics. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.