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Moby-Duck

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I mentioned a week ago that I had just downloaded and begun reading Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. Janet Maslin’s weekday NYT review, which appeared a year ago this week, got me interested. The Sunday review by Elizabeth Royte two weeks later inspired me to download and read the free opening portion. But I wasn’t inspired to read further at the time. I simply added the title to my list of books to go back to some day.

Three months ago, Maslin placed Moby-Duck on her list of ten recommended books for 2011, re-kindling my interest. I re-read the reviews last weekend and took the plunge. Here, for instance, is a portion of Royte’s enthusiastic review:

“Hast seen the white whale?” a Melville-loving officer aboard a research vessel asks Donovan Hohn, in his dazzling “Moby-Duck,” whenever they pass in the ship’s corridor.

“Hast seen the yellow duck?” Hohn cheerfully responds.

The answer is always no, but this hardly dampens Hohn’s enthusiasm for his Moby — a load of bath toys that plummeted off a storm-wracked container ship in the northern Pacific in 1992. The maritime misfortune was exciting for beachcombers, who would find the toys on North American coastlines for years to come, and it provided data for scientists who study ocean currents. It also spurred the map-loving Hohn, a dozen years on, to give up his Manhattan teaching gig and embark upon what could have been a fairly straightforward investigation. Where did the ducks come from, where did they drift, and why?

… The duck’s world is large, it turns out, and the desire to chart it puts Hohn on seagoing vessels of varying sizes and seaworthiness with captains courageous and cranky. … As the ducks drift, so drifts Hohn, from the China-based toy industry to the depths of polymer chemistry; from a history of childhood to Sesame Street’s “Rubber Duckie” and the role of animals in art; from early Arctic exploration to modern maritime disasters and the study of hydrography. Hohn is game to learn as much as he can, and his scholarship is impressive. But his real interests are far more abstract: the nature of quests, the line between fable and fact, the distinction between the natural and the man-made worlds, and the impossibility of fully understanding one’s place — to say nothing of a toy duck’s — in relation to the universe.

[snip]

“Moby-Duck” succeeds as harebrained adventure, as a cautionary environmental tale, as a deconstruction of consumer demand, and as a meditation on wilderness and imagination. Hohn moves easily between the micro and the macro, weaving personal histories into science and industry as he roams. … Hohn seems to have it all: deep intelligence, a strikingly original voice, humility and a hunger to suss out everything a yellow duck may literally or metaphorically touch. Naturally, he can’t, but the chase is, after all, the thing.

Sounds great. But Hohn’s deep intelligence and strikingly original voice have eluded me. Through the first fourth or so of the book, I considered abandoning ship. Friday night I read a big chunk, today another fourth, bringing me three-fourths of the way through, and now I’m committed to seeing the book to its conclusion.

The book is organized around a sequence of trips, each exploring some facet of beachcombing, garbage, the environment, plastics, manufacturing in China, container shipping. We’ve been to southern Alaska by Sitka, farther north Alaska along the Kenai Peninsula, south of Hawaii’s Big Island, Hong Kong and southeast China, a container ship sailing from Pusan to Seattle, and now an oceanographic cruise from Woods Hole to Greenland aboard a famous research vessel, the Knorr.

I have learned some interesting tidbits about ocean currents and weather, the risks of a career on container ships, though I hunger for more detail. It’s been fun to meet the characters Hohn sails with, though again I wish he told us more. I have come to appreciate the fascinating lives led by oceanographers — academic and non-academic. (Russ, you’ll have to tell me more. Are you fascinating too?) But when Hohn meditates on the deeper meaning of toys, or the sea, or whatever topic he probes in greater depth — or when he connects what he learns to his own life — I lose interest.

Back to the North Atlantic. I’m enjoying this part.

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