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Annals of the Former World Hardcover


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (June 10, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374105200
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374105204
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 2.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #192,066 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In 1978 New Yorker magazine staff writer John McPhee set out making notes for an ambitious project: a geological history of North America, centered, for the sake of convenience, on the 40th parallel, a history that encompasses billions of years. In 1981 he published the first of the four books that would come from his research: Basin and Range, a study of the mountainous lands between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas. Two years later came In Suspect Terrain, a grand overview of the Appalachian mountain system. In 1986 McPhee released Rising from the Plains, a history of the Rocky Mountains set largely in Wyoming. And in 1993 came Assembling California, a survey of the area geologists find to be a laboratory of volcanic and tectonic processes, a place where geology can be watched in the making. Annals of the Former World gathers these four volumes, which McPhee always conceived of as a whole, to make that epic of the Earth's formation; to it he adds a fifth book, Crossing the Craton, which introduces the continent's ancient core, underlying what is now Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.

McPhee's great virtue as a journalist covering the sciences--and any other of the countless subjects he has taken on, for that matter--is his ability to distill and explain complex matters: here, for example, the processes of mineral deposition or of plate tectonics. He does so by allowing geologists to speak for themselves and an entertaining lot they are, those sometimes odd men and women who puzzle out the landscape for clues to its most ancient past. Annals of the Former World is a magisterial work of popular science for which geologists--and devotees of good writing--will be grateful. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

A feast for all John McPhee fans, this major book incorporates some of the author's best work on geology into a comprehensive tour de force. Those familiar with McPhee's writing on the subject of geology will know that his narrative includes not only scientific theory but also portraitures of his geologic guides. While the majority of this material has appeared in the New Yorker and in books such as Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain and Rising from the Plains, the collection, which includes 20,000 new words, is much more than a recycling of past writing. As McPhee says, "The text has been meshed, melded, revised, in some places cut, and everywhere studied for repetition." McPhee's many fans won't be disappointed with the high-quality descriptive portraits of geologists, their work and theories. Since the writing follows McPhee's previous works and not any set geography or geologic logic, the author has provided what he calls a "Narrative Table of Contents," which not only describes each section in turn but the theories discussed in it. In this near flawless compilation of ambitious and expansive scope, McPhee's personalized style remains consistent and triumphant: "Ebbets Field, where they buried the old Brooklyn Dodgers, was also on the terminal moraine. When a long-ball hitter hit a long ball, it would land on Bedford Avenue and bounce down the morainal front to roll toward Coney Island on the outwash plain. No one in Los Angeles would ever hit a homer like that." 25 maps, not seen by PW.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

Customer Reviews

John McPhee is the master, and this book is his masterpiece.
Mikey C.
I would recommend his books to anyone that enjoys the outdoors, not just geologists.
S. Morrissey
I've read all of McPhee's books and enjoyed every one of them.
Jo Barnes

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

199 of 207 people found the following review helpful By David Kellogg on June 5, 2001
Format: Paperback
Although I'm giving this book five stars, I have some reservations.
As is well known, ANNALS collects four earlier books -- Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains, and Assembling California -- and adds a fifth section, "Crossing the Craton." All the books show McPhee crossing America along and near Interstate 80 on various trips with geologists. Each book focuses on a different section of I-80 and a different geologist. Together, they are supposed to constitute a more or less complete picture of contemporary geology.
Among current science writers, McPhee has no peer as a stylist. Geology is an incredibly difficult subject to convey in popular terms, and McPhee is often masterful. Numerous passages -- especially in Rising from the Plains and Assembling California --are remarkable. Academic geologists are thankful to him for popularizing their subject, and they should be.
But as a total picture of a science (or of the Earth), I'm not sure ANNALS completely works. Here are my objections.
1. In Suspect Terrain is the weak book of the four. By focusing on a geologist (Anita Harris) whose idiosyncratic views are made overly significant, McPhee confuses the total picture. In the book, Harris questions plate tectonics and repeatedly refers to the "plate-tectonics boys." McPhee subtly allows the fact that Harris is a woman to add legitimacy to her complaint, when that has nothing to do with the objection and in fact some early (and late) plate tectonics contributions were made by women, and not by "boys."
2. The road-trip conceit that shapes the book also limits it. It limits the book to land (generally) and the continental United States (specifically).
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47 of 47 people found the following review helpful By KarenP on February 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Lovers of McPhee will have no trouble burying themselves in this book, for it has as many layers and interests as the folded-and-faulted mountains that are its theme. Anyone new to McPhee should not hesitate to pick it up, as one might, given the size and presumed topic. My only trip to Wyoming was 30 years ago, but now I ache to go back, and see it not as a place that is 80-percent dust and tumbleweed, but as McPhee has uncovered it; his writing is science made literature. I found the other reviews insisting on maps and pictures shallow and disappointing; such visuals would horribly detract from the flow of words, of which McPhee is a virtuoso. McPhee does not set out to write a textbook and teach geology to the novice. He expects you to envision what he is seeing and hearing, whether he is standing inches from a screaming tractor-trailer at a roadcut at Donner Summit, or asea in the names given to the rock we take for granite. Even if you have read the books contained in this quasi-anthology, as I have, it is far more than the sum of its parts, more than simply the books taped cover to cover. Focus on the whole, and come away with new regard for the arrogance of the human race in supposing our effect on this planet, and the wonders of the history of its rock that we may never know.
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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on March 6, 2005
Format: Paperback
McPhee has collected his four books on American geology in this, his magnum opus. His 650-page essay, much of it originally published in The New Yorker, recounts his travels on Interstate 80, during which he was accompanied by several geologists. As a whole, it is simultaneously an admirable work of awe-inspiring description and astonishing detail and a frustratingly random compilation of theoretical research and overwhelming arcana.

Throughout, McPhee focuses on two geological theories: plate tectonics and continental glaciation, with an emphasis on the former. The four books cover various areas of the United States, out of order: Nevada, New York City, Pennsylvania and the Appalachians, Wyoming and the Rocky Mountains, and California's Central Valley and its flanking mountain ranges. To complete his tour across the continent, he has added a new, relatively short essay, ''Crossing the Craton,'' which encompasses the Great Plains and Great Lakes region.

Along the way, McPhee intersperses what he calls "set pieces" and "time lines," which place geological research in currently held theoretical and chronological contexts: the origins of coal and petroleum, the differences between field geologists and "black box" geologists, a reconstructed view of what Kansas may have looked like during the Middle Proterozoic era. He also interrupts his travels with riveting accounts of notable historical events, from the California Gold Rush to the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco.

Most of the book is endlessly fascinating largely because McPhee is an accomplished prose stylist who can describe just about anything and also because he can be very, very funny.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 20, 1998
Format: Hardcover
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.
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