In fiction, particularly in film, a MacGuffin is a plot element which seems to drive the plot forward (a rare diamond, perhaps, because the main characters are chasing after it); but in reality, the MacGuffin used to get the reader into the story loses its importance as the story goes on, because the story is really about deeper, more meaningful concepts: love, glory, sacrifice, truth, and so on. Alfred Hitchcock is credited with making the concept of this mechanical plot device popular. In fiction.
With Moby-Duck, we enter the world of nonfiction. Here, a reader's expectations (at least my expectations) are different. If the author is writing about the Abominable Snowman, for example, he or she had better stay focused on and provide a lot of information on and insight into the topic. Or, he or she should make it clear up front that the book is not really about the Abominable Snowman at all: it's just a collection of thoughts. Some abominable, some not.
The subtitle of Moby-Duck, printed large on the front cover, is: "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."
Well, that is simply not what the book delivers. First of all, none of the beachcombers, oceanographers, or environmentalists mentioned in this book went in search of the bath toys. No. They were all doing something else, and the author bummed along on the trip so that he could search for the bath toys. Second of all, this is NOT the story of the bath toys lost at sea. That's what it promises to be, but it isn't. Instead, it is 400-plus pages of the thoughts and observations of the author, Donovan Hohn. While I like many of his observations, particularly the ones he relates to American literature such as Moby Dick, the fact is that I as a reader am not there for these observations. I'm there for the ducks, of which we get precious little.
To bend over backward and be ultra-fair to the author, I will say that even if I had never expected this book to be about the rubber duckies, and had always expected it to be the observations and ramblings of the author, I would still give it three stars. It's just not that interesting. Yes, the oceans and the currents and ecology and the horrible use of the oceans as a dumping grounds for trash, all of these are serious concerns. But the way the author presents them, they seem like ramblings, not like analysis and not like a call to action. I was disappointed.