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Annals of the Former World Paperback – June 15, 2000
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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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).Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Just opened up Book 1 for Basin and Range, great review and looking forward to completing soon. Purchase price through Amazon made it a very good Christmas gift to myself.Published 17 days ago by Tony Occhiuzzi
The book came in perfect quality. I purchased it as a Christmas gift for my cousin and I know he'll love it.Published 1 month ago by Sara
It was not easy to read because I had to look up the technical terms, but I learned a lot about geology. The kindle version was great because you could look the words up instantly. Read morePublished 1 month ago by ponygirl
If you only want to read one book and learn a ton of stuff about the geology of North America, this is it. It's the second copy I've bought -- it makes a good present!Published 2 months ago by Peregrine Enterprises Consignment
John McPhee's writing is extraordinarily vivid. McPhee visited places I've seen many times, then wrote about arresting little details that made me sit up in surprise. Read morePublished 2 months ago by KK
A mind-bending read! If the wild, four-dimensional evolution of the earth doesn't stretch your thinking, little would. But it was a very tough read for the layman. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Chris Anderson