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First, a confession: I feel somewhat like a husband whose been disloyal, if only in his heart, to a faithful and altogether wonderful wife, just because he's grown bored by the very routine of their relationship. I've been reading John McPhee since I was a kid and he was writing about Princeton and Knickerbocker hero Bill Bradley. In those nearly forty years I can't recall a single uninteresting piece he's written and many of them are marvelous. But when this book came over the transom was my reaction: great, a new John McPhee!? No. To my shame, it was: oh geez, 350 more routinely excellent pages from McPhee. Are there so many good authors out there that one can afford to be blasé about one of the best? Would I rather a book that might quite possibly stink, written by someone else, just for the uncertainty involved in reading it? How callow.

In my own defense though, this time out Mr. McPhee is writing about the American shad. I'm as big a fan of fishing literature as anyone, but who does not feel, when they see a new fishing book nowadays, the way C.S. Lewis felt one night at a meeting of the Inklings, when J.R.R. Tolkien prepared to read to the assembled from his latest work: "Oh, no! Not another [freaking] elf!"? In your heart of hearts, don't you say to yourself: "Oh, no! Not another freaking fishing book!"?

All the more reason to feel like a fool now, having read the book, when Mr. McPhee has demonstrated once again that he's one of the finest non-fiction writers in our history and that there's still plenty of life in the fishing genre. Mr. McPhee may not quite have invented the technique of taking a topic and looking at it in detail from top to bottom--the shelves are packed with books that have borrowed the technique, books with names like: Salt; Cod; Tobacco; and Coal--but he is the master. And so, in this book, we get the entire natural history of the fish and no one will finish the last page wishing he knew more about the shad. However, there are two segments that stand out and definitively lift the work out of the ordinary. It opens with that most hackneyed of scenes, an epic battle to land the big one, but in the author's capable hands it somehow seems new and fresh. It goes on for page after page, until the cops have even shown up--at his wife's request, to make sure he's not dead--until the climax can't possibly be worthy of the fight, but still he manages to make it satisfying.

The other highlight surprises because it's so politically incorrect. The final chapter takes on not only PETA and other animal rights groups but well-intentioned fishermen everywhere to challenge the notion of catch and release. Honestly and guiltlessly discussing the inevitable damage that just landing a fish does to the animal, he leaves little doubt that however good releasing them may make fishermen and activists feel about themselves, it does little to help fish or fisheries.

This ability to make the old seem fresh and to look at the seemingly sacred from a fresh perspective, make Mr. McPhee, even in his twenty-sixth book, a writer of currency and pertinence. I repent of my sin and I shan't ever doubt him again.


Grade: (A)


See also:

John McPhee (5 books reviewed)
Sports (Hunting & Fishing)
John McPhee Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John McPhee
    -John McPhee Home Page
    -Featured Author: John McPhee ( With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times)
    -Creative Nonfiction: Writers: John McPhee
    -EXCERPT: FIRST CHAPTER of The Founding Fish by John McPhee
    -ESSAY: A Philosopher in the Kitchen: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. (John McPhee, February 11, 1979, The New Yorker)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: John McPhee's Fish Tales (Dick Gordon, 11/22/2002, The Connection)
    -ESSAY: McPhee on Catch-and-Release (Les Palmer, Alaska Outdoor Journal)
    -Essay on McPhee & New Journalism (Sharon Bass)
    -"Twenty Questions: A Conversation with John McPhee" (Creative Nonfiction, Michael Pearson)
    -BOOK SITE: Annals of the Former World   by John McPhee (FSB Associates)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Annals of the Former World
    -AUDIO: McPhee on Science Friday (NPR)
    -ARTICLE: McPhee wins Pulitzer for Annals (PrincetonUniversity)
    -John A. McPhee '53 Web Shrine
    -ESSAY: How Reading John McPhee’s Book on Tennis Helped Me Write About Skateboarding: Jonathan Russell Clark Finds Better Ways to Describe the Action (Jonathan Russell Clark, February 9, 2022, LitHub)
-ARCHIVES: "john mcphee" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish by John McPhee (Craig Nova, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (James Swan, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (William Moody, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (Bill Pride, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (Curtis Edmonds, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (Stephen Bodio, Minneapolis Star Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (Michael David Sims, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (BRUCE TIERNEY, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (Rob Buchanan, Outside Online)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (MICHAEL S. ROSENWALD, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of The Founding Fish (Keith C. Heidorn, Living Gently Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of Annals of the Former World by John McPhee Rocks of Age: In his travels along Interstate 80, John McPhee has seen the history of the earth. (DAVID QUAMMEN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Basin and Range by John McPhee (Paul Zweig, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  BASIN AND RANGE. by John McPhee (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of In Suspect Terrain (Michiko Karutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of IN SUSPECT TERRAIN. By John McPhee (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Rising from the Plains (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Rising From the Plains (Evan S. Connell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Assembling California (David Rains Wallace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Annals of the Former World  Eloquence fills a tome of geological weight (Rob Laymon for The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: Like Water From a Stone: The secret of this fervently worshiped nonfiction stylist: neurotically withhold. (Sarah Kerr, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Annals of the Former World (Ellen Scott, your Guide for Ecotourism,
    -REVIEW: of Annals of the Former World (MICHAEL SIMS, BookPage)
    -REVIEW : of John McPhee, Annals of the Former World   (Mike Lepore for
    -REVIEW: Seeing the USA with John McPhee: Deep Structure and Travels in the Fourth Dimension  (Theodore C. Humphrey,  California State University, Pomona)
    -REVIEW: 40,000 Words About Rocks: Road cuts and the people who look at them (Ron Hogan, Crosswinds)
    -REVIEW: The Stone Diaries:  A pioneer of narrative nonfiction takes on his biggest topic: the history of the ground we stand on (Sabine Hrechdakian, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW of Basin and Range (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW of Coming into the Country (NY Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Alosa sapidissima (Wilson 1811) (USGS)
    -American Shad (Alosa Sapidissima) (Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Fisheries)