Books: Hook, Line and Thinker

A fish becomes food for thought in John McPhee's funny and fascinating history of the humble shad

On April 1, 1865, Confederate General George Edward Pickett slipped away from his post at a vital crossroads in Virginia because a fellow officer had caught several shad for lunch. Thus was the Battle of Five Forks lost, and the course of the Civil War irrevocably altered. If The Founding Fish (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 358 pages) is any indication, had John McPhee been in command at Five Forks, he might have behaved likewise.

The Founding Fish is a worthy addition to the newly popular genre of the one-fish book (joining Mark Kurlansky's best-selling Cod, among others). Its subject, the relatively...

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