Anyone who enjoys well written non fiction will enjoy McPhee's latest, regardless of their interest in geology. He has the amazing ability to make any subject interesting, by explaining the science in a plain style while constantly keeping the personalities involved visible. From civil engineering to lighter-than-air flight to the cultivation of oranges, every essay and every book is a joy. If you are a fan of good writing, this one is for you. BUT, if you are a McPhee fan, you might be annoyed by this one. I have over two dozen of Mr. McPhee's books on my shelves at home. Four of them are this book. "Annals of the Former World" is a omnibus edition of "Assembling California", "Rising from the Plains", "In Suspect Terrain", and "Basin and Range". The only new material is a short (36 pages), well written essay "Crossing the Craton" and a poor-to-fair narrative table of contents. That's it, maybe 45 page! s of new material in a a 695 page book. I do feel that somewhere in the publicity for the book mention should have been made of this. If you've never read any of it, get it. If you are buying for a library, get it. If you are considering getting "Annals of the Former World" because you are a fan of the best non fiction writer around today, well, you might want to forget it.
McPhee's masteful writing make the difficult subjects of geology and geological time seem like old friends. I find myself looking at the rocks and layers in roadcuts in an entirely new way and wondering how McPhee would describe the images that I am seeing. He also makes geologists, both living and historic, people who I wanted to know more about. The subject coverage is exhausting. And reading the book is exhausting as well. This is not a book for a quick cross country flight. Rather it is one to be reread.
John McPhee has re-written the book on non-fiction, turning science and history into one gripping drama after another in writing that brings to mind the finest Sunday newspaper features. No matter the subject, he's set the standard by which others should be measured; the Pulitzer committee couldn't have chosen better. It's especially proper that this book be so honored, as it represents a body of work spanning many years and concerning what I suspect is McPhee's very favorite subject matter; geology and natural history. Call it his "life achievement award" but don't tell him that (we need him to keep writing for ages to come). John, I've got a shelf set aside just for your books in my library but it's half empty all the time - I can't stop lending them out.
If you have any interest in geology, western history or people you will love this book. I wasn't all that enthused by the descriptions, but once started I couldn't put it down. It is great and deserved the Pulitzer Prize that it won.
I am halfway through reading this for the second time. I feel that this is the most interesting non-fiction book I have ever read. (The Bible is the best book.) McPhee manages to convey the fascinating lives of individual geologists with the wonder of geology. When you finish reading it you want to be a geologist. My only criticism is that there should be an annotated and illustrated volume to better understand some of the technical parts. This book deserved the Pulitzer prize.
Wow. I always liked rocks. Now I know much more. Unfortunately, driving on the interstate has become more problematic: I find my gaze directed at road cuts, the layers of rock... thinking about the depths of geological time. A good read: both from a geological perspective, but also with regards to McPhee's presentation of the geologists he traveled with- their careers, interests, what makes them tick. Buy this book.
Having previously labored through countless textbook style readings concerning geology, experiencing McPhee's rendering of this subject was truly a breath of fresh air. Any layperson who harbors the desire to understand the dynamics of our protean planet should strongly consider savoring McPhee's talents at telling the story.
McPhee is a writer I've visited from time to time over the past 20 years. I succumbed to this latest, a rebinding of several earlier books with new information on Archaen geology, because of McPhee's sheer exuberance at the natural world. The writing is pure McPhee, with all the quirks and foibles that he brings to writing. Some of his metaphors are wonderful; others seem too strained. He leaps like a brook, jumping from a comment about rock (naturally) to one about Mormons or birds or triple-long tractor trailors. At times, it's irritating. The biggest criticism is goes to the maps, what there is of them... they're poorly printed, in black and white and (mostly) gray. They're barely legible and far too few. This books calls for an abundance of maps and illustration as McPhee discusses very complicated issues of geology, tectonics and continental movement. Still, the book is enjoyable. All he needs to do, besides republishing it with another 50-or-so maps, is to print it in a format that you can handle while driving across I-80!
John McPhee's books fascinate me. He delves into obscure subjects like they are hot fudge sundaes, scooping out the best experts, and allowing their words to reveal their inner selves by talking about those things they love the most. Since I travel with a copy of "Roadside Kansas" in my car at all times, reading about the rocks in other parts of the continent was pleasurable. The reason I read McPhee isn't to find out more about Oranges, or Merchant Marines, or Geology, though. Its to understand that unique person who has been blessed with the elusive opportunity to earn their living doing the thing they love the most. McPhee's books let me see their world better than any other writer.