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Here's Our Publishing Pick of the Month


People write books about everything you can think of: candy through antiquity, protecting against abductions by outer-space aliens, the life of Franklin Pierce. (And if you have to ask who Franklin Pierce is, you prove the point.)

What's even more amazing is that somebody actually pays to publish these books. Regrettably, it's often the authors themselves, since everyone else is laughing at them.

Many writers tackle obscure or weighty or clever subjects.

And then there's Henry Petroski. The subject of his most famous book couldn't be simpler. It's about pencils, everything you'd want to know — and then some — about this humble writing instrument.

And he's done it again. His latest book, dressed in a hardback cover with a slick dust jacket and published by one of the world's biggest publishers (Alfred Knopf in New York) is all about toothpicks! The "technology and culture" of toothpicks, as Petroski, a professor of history at Duke University, points out in his subtitle.

So what must the world be told about a sliver of wood that people have used to pry gross things from between their teeth for centuries? Well, did we say wood? Professor Petroski goes on and on about picks made of ivory and plastic, bird quills and bones, gold and silver and grass. He writes about poisoned toothpicks, how the picks are milled, toothpick art, and, of course, the crucial toothpicks that hold together olives in a dry martini.

Henry Petroski is doing just fine with his studies of life's simple things: pencils, toothpicks. So late at night, no doubt, he's slaving away on his next opus about . . . string? Pins, or pickles? Pots? Coat hangers, perhaps. We can only hope he hasn't beaten us to the copyright office with our idea: the definitive history of doorknobs!

Oh, and if you simply must know, Franklin Pierce was the 14th president of the United States. A century and a half later, his life story is only slightly more interesting than the saga of the toothpick.

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