I play basketball in the park every morning — I’m not any good at it. Standing five foot, eight inches tall, I don’t have the physical tools, and I’m not especially athletic. Skill does develop through practice, but slowly.
Here’s the thing. When I go out and play basketball, I could make every shot if I stood next to the basket and shot layups. But where’s the fun in that? I run around and chuck up three-pointers, try to make shots off one foot from the corner, and shoot from behind the backboard. I miss a lot of shots. And it’s more fun that way.
My shots at the park in the morning, I think, are like how John McPhee chooses topics to write books about. It’s easy to shoot layups, and it’s easy to write books about popular topics, like World War II or Henry VIII. But McPhee chooses to instead shoot threes from half-court: he writes books about esoteric, strange topics, like orange production in Florida or the Pine Barrens of south Jersey, or, as in “The Founding Fish,” about the history of shad fishing in America.
Wild topics, I know. And here’s the thing. McPhee never shoots a layup. But he makes all his shots. Listen in.
This podcast was written and recorded by Gabe Robare, and was produced under the 145th Managing Board of The Daily Princetonian. It was edited by Cammie Lee and produced by Francesca Block with copy-editing and production help from Isabel Rodrigues.
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