There are books that someone plans and writes in an orderly fashion about a particular topic. There are others that seem to write themselves and grow, guided more or less blindly, by the power of an obsession. Some years ago, Donovan Hohn happened to read the story of a shipwreck that occurred in 1992 in the most desolate area of the Pacific Northwest, south of the Aleutian Islands. Later he would discover that in reality it had not been a shipwreck: a freighter, the Ever Laurel, was caught in a terrible storm, and during one of the violent pitches that almost sank it, some of the containers stored on deck slid into the ocean. Inside one of them was a shipment of 28,800 plastic toys made in China and destined for the United States. On the basis of his early readings, which very soon led him to neglect his work and lose days at a time in periodical rooms consulting obscure journals on maritime commerce or tracking down information on the Internet, Hohn learned that the 28,800 toy animals were little yellow ducks with big eyes and an orange bill like the ones that float in children’s bathtubs all over the world. He imagined the waters of the Pacific covered by an armada of little yellow ducks, dispersed by the currents as the years passed, appearing in blocks of ice in the Arctic or in the seaweed washed up by the tide on beaches in Brazil or New England.
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