Moby Duck

Bookshelf: Moby-Duck

Moby-Duck – Donovan Hohn

Moby Duck
Moby Duck

I haven’t reproduced the full subtitle of this book – you can see it on the cover at left. It sets the tone for a work of astonishing verbosity, in which the author takes a fascinating concept and beats it to death with a surfeit of personal anecdote and tens of thousands of words. Donovan Hohn was a school teacher, who encouraged his writing students to practise the “archaeology of the ordinary“: scrutinising ordinary objects until their special essence reveals itself. Hohn’s imagination is captured by tales of bath toys washing up on far flung beaches, and in this book practices some of his own advice.

After nearly 29,000 plastic bath toys (ducks, beavers, frogs and turtles) spilled from a container that washed overboard in the Pacific Ocean in 1992, beachcombers began finding them on beaches from Australia to Alaska. (There’s a nice map on the Friendly Floatees wikipedia page.) Entranced by the journeys taken by these floating toys, Hohn takes a leave of absence from work, leaves his wife and infant son at home, and seeks out more information and understanding about the forces that sent the toys bobbing all over the world’s oceans.

He visits Alaskan beaches and speaks to beachcombers and environmentalists there, who pick through the mounds of ocean-borne debris and bag it for removal. He travels on an NSB container ship from Hong Kong to Seattle and on a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute research vessel to the Canadian Arctic (the latter two being my favourite parts of the book), and to a toy factory in China. He also visits Hawaii, and sees beaches whose sand is completely suffused with plastic nodules. He takes an ocean voyage to the North Pacific Gyre, and gives an excellent – and alarming – sense of just how saturated our earth and ocean are with plastic debris.

This is more a literary work than a scientific one, and I think that is where part of my frustration with Hohn’s treatment of the subject matter stems from. There are a couple of glaring errors (one that stung was the author referring to the “Alguhas” current that washes South Africa’s coast, rather than the “Agulhas” current). The Telegraph agrees with me on the overblown verbosity of this book; the New York Times is somewhat more favourable in their review, as is the Guardian.

You can read an author interviews here. You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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