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Annals of the Former World ()

Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction)

John McPhee is one of the few writers whose name in the Table of Contents is enough to make it worthwhile buying The New Yorker and he's spun many enjoyable books out of these initial stories.  So at this point, over 30 years and 20 books into his career, he's certainly earned the right to some indulgence from his fans, of which I am one.  Annals of the Former World represents McPhee's enormous, two decade long, labor of love, equal parts travelogue and geological history.  Beginning in 1978, McPhee ranged back and forth along I-80 (roughly the 40th parallel), accompanied by various geologists, learning about the theory of plate tectonics from both adherents and skeptics.  These trips produced numerous articles for The New Yorker, four separate books [Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), Rising from the Plains (1986), and Assembling California (1993)] and now, in this Pulitzer Prize Winner, the pieces have finally been collected along with a concluding chapter, Crossing the Craton.

Many of the author's strengths are on display here:  research--the sheer amount of knowledge he acquires when he tackles a topic is staggering; portraiture--a series of excellent profiles of the folks that he traveled with and learned from; authorial distance--he may be the last magazine writer in America who doesn't begin a story by talking about himself; and pure wonderment--no author is better at conveying his own joy of discovery when discussing the particular subject about which he's writing.  But, perhaps simply because of the monumental length of the book, his usually subtle weaknesses are magnified here.  There is just too much information here for the average reader to process and far too many technical terms.  His fascination with geology is readily apparent and he very nearly treats the terminology of geology like song lyrics or poetry; it sometimes seems that he's just stringing phrases of geology nomenclature together because he thinks that they sound neat.    That's all well and good, unless, like me, you fail to hear the music his words are meant to accompany.  Some of the geology is interesting, but the forward momentum of the book depends on the reader becoming as obsessed with the topic as the author, otherwise it becomes simply overwhelming.

Also, the structure and length of the book turn his usually effective authorial distance into something of a weakness.  For any given character study in the book, it's fine to focus completely on the person under discussion and it's a pleasant change of pace for an author to leave himself out of the story.  But in a book that stretches across decades and where the author is obviously traveling with his characters and being instructed by them, his absence from the narrative becomes kind of disconcerting.  Take each of the sections of the book separately, especially as magazine pieces, and this would have been less noticeable.  But over the course of a unified structure totaling 660 pages, it's kind of weird; who ever heard of a travel book with no traveler?

Ultimately, I think this is a book that works best if you read it in discrete chunks, just as it was written and originally presented.  When the whole thing is cobbled together into this mammoth text, it begins to resemble the geological formations and processes that he's writing about; the separate sections--stable in and of themselves--rub up against one another, friction results from the structural contradictions and the tension between them, and the seams start to show.    I do recommend the book, it's informative, entertaining and oftentimes quite lyrical, but unless you share McPhee's fascination with geology, plan on seeing it on your bedside table for many months.  You'll want to dip into it periodically, not read it all in one stretch.


Grade: (B+)


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)
    -REVIEW: of Tabula Rasa by John McPhee (Mark Oppenheimer, Washington Post)
-REVIEW: of Tabula Rasa (Noah Rawlings, LA Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:

-United States Geoglogical Survey
    -Geological Society of America
    -American Geological Institute