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205 of 215 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary writing on a difficult and complex subject
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...
Published on June 5, 2001 by David Kellogg

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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Poetic, descriptive, but damaged goods without visuals
I appreciate the quality of McPhee's writing and his ability - and evident intent - to describe without visual aids. However,to undertake to successfully survey the geological history of North America without illustrations, photographs and maps represents a serious if not fatal handicapping of Annals of the Former World. This is particularly true if his target audience,...
Published on September 30, 2002 by Amazon Customer


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205 of 215 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary writing on a difficult and complex subject, June 5, 2001
This review is from: Annals of the Former World (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). Occasionally we make detours to Hawai'i, Switzerland, Indonesia, or Greece, but the idea seems to be that North American geology illustrates the whole world, not the other way round.
3. The road-trip conceit also privileges field geology over other kinds of geology (such as geophysical modelling). Even the geophysicists in the book, like Moores in Assembling California, are portrayed with a rugged, outdoorsy pedigree. Like oldsters pissed off about rock and roll, these geologists (Moores excepted) envision modelling as part of the corruption of youth. Obviously the image of the rock-mad field geologist scrambling up a roadcut with a hammer is more attractive, in popular science terms, than the geophysicist at the desk worrying over the parameters of her computer model. But McPhee sometimes allows his romantic presentation of the field geologist to affect his judgement.
4. Because the book was conceived and written over quite a long time, its picture of geology subtly changes without always indicating that it is doing so. Each moment is a snapshot of a discipline, and usually an excellent one -- but the story of how the total discipline came together is sometimes hard to grasp. There are moments when it happens: the story of hot spot theory in Rising from the Plains, for example. But there are two narratives -- one of McPhee's travels at the moment, one of the whole of geology -- that do not completely overlap. (McPhee's new front matter, including his alternate table of contents, make it possible to get such a total picture -- but you would have to do that _very_ deliberately, and probably on a second reading.)
All that said, I must insist that this book is a pleasure to read. I repeatedly got lost, in the good sense, in reading it. Sentence by sentence, it is the best book of popular science in recent memory. While I agree with some other reviewers that more pictures would have been nice, it's one of McPhee's strengths that he is confident that his writing will convey what he wants. That confidence raises the stakes for him as a writer, and he is usually able to meet the challenge he has set.
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47 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let yourself get buried in the rocks..., February 4, 2000
By 
KarenP (Alexandria, VA) - See all my reviews
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
4.0 out of 5 stars The best unillustrated work of "popular" geology available, March 6, 2005
By 
This review is from: Annals of the Former World (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. But, every now and then, his powers of description fail him, and he unintentionally confirms that, sometimes, a thousand words isn't worth a single picture. In his section on the development of the world's ophiolites, for example, he dares (and fails) to tackle what no geology textbook would describe without illustrations. During his travels, many of his academic companions remark on the importance of actually "doing" geology--of visiting the field and seeing it for oneself, but McPhee practices his own form of "black box" geology by describing, but never showing (with the exception of a few relief maps), what it is he's talking about. Another, secondary, source of frustration is McPhee's inclination to pose as nonjudgmental recorder, rarely evaluating his material or synthesizing it into a cohesive whole.

Overall, however, "Annals' is probably the best book of "popular" geology one can read--certainly the best without illustrations. Its strengths overpower its faults and the best portions of the book are perceptively witty and unforgettably informative. You'll probably never drive by a roadcut again without pausing to take note of the strata.
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding if (and only IF) you don't all ready own it., July 20, 1998
By A Customer
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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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing work, February 4, 2001
This review is from: Annals of the Former World (Paperback)
Be forewarned: If you are a McPhee fan, you are likely already own this book. It is a compilation of four of his older works, along with a short fifth work, "Crossing the Craton", and a narrative introduction/table of contents. Only about 80 pages of this work are new material.
If you have not read McPhee before, this is the place to start. McPhee is an English major, who has written for decades about geology and the people who study it. His books are written by a layman, for the layman, and are a joy to read. He has roamed the country, following several famous geologists as they study their portion of the country. The book itself is arranged as to discuss the the topics in an east-to-west fashion, roughly following the route of I-80 across the country.
McPhee is a master, and brings geology to life in his works. My only complaint about "Annals of the Former World" is that as a compilation of several books, it at times seem repetitive, as the same points were discussed in multiple works. Unlike other reviewers, I found no problem with the maps or the layout. This book is an excellent example of how to write non-fiction, and deserves the Pulitzer that it won. A must-read for anyone studying geology, and recommended for anyone who enjoys non-fiction.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars McPhee's Best Work, July 21, 2000
By 
James D. DeWitt "Alaska Fan" (Fairbanks, AK United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
John McPhee, in the opinion of most people, is America's greatest living expository writer. In the opinion of the Pulitzer Committee, this is his greatest work. Except, perhaps, for Coming Into the Country, it's hard to argue with that conclusion.
McPhee set out to describe the geology across the United States, roughly along the route of Interstate 40. The decision came at about the same time as a revolution in geology, the emergence and dominance of the theory of "plate tectonics" and "continental drift. The four books that comprise Annals, written across an interval of 15 years, reflect the increasing maturity of those theories and the deepening understanding of the implications of that scientific revolution.
McPhee's ability to explain complex geology concepts in everyday terms, and to humanize and de-mystify abstract science, has never been better. His ability to explain his topics through people, and to make those people come alive, has never been more skilled. In explaining the geology of California, for example, he notes that most of California, like most Californians, originally came from somewhere else. McPhee has not written primarily as science popularizer. But his writing here is so good, his explanations so clear and his understanding of the topic so profound that he shames most authors who work in the genre full time.
This is not "Rocks for Jocks," as introduction to geology classes are often described. This is hard science, controversial theories and mind-boggling intervals of time laid out in terms that non-scientists can understand. From the creation of the Delaware Water Gap to the family history of geologist David Love to the details of the California gold rush, McPhee lays out geology and the consequences of geology in accessible ways.
It's a brilliant book. After reading it, you'll never look at a roadcut or the terrain around you in quite the same way again.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Poetic, descriptive, but damaged goods without visuals, September 30, 2002
By 
Amazon Customer (East Wenatchee WA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Annals of the Former World (Paperback)
I appreciate the quality of McPhee's writing and his ability - and evident intent - to describe without visual aids. However,to undertake to successfully survey the geological history of North America without illustrations, photographs and maps represents a serious if not fatal handicapping of Annals of the Former World. This is particularly true if his target audience, as seems to be the case, is geology laypeople such as myself. I found myself constantly wishing for visual aids to supplement his narrative. Alas, the number of such aids in this voluminous book can perhaps be counted on the fingers of two hands.
Within a hundred pages of the end I finally put the book down.
I am now reading Monroe & Wicander's "Physical Geology", a college text book, of all things, and am enjoying the heck out of it. And it is rich in visuals that very effectively supplement the engaging text.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Geology for the masses..........., July 11, 2003
By 
nto62 (Corona, CA USA) - See all my reviews
Comprised of the books Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California, "Annals" is a geologic history of America along the roadcuts of Interstate 80 and it is masterfully done. John McPhee's talent as an essayist is to take the technically, though superficially, mundane and present in such a way as to hold the reader captive. Stripping bare the jargon, dismissing the rote explanation, and uncovering the sublime, Mr. McPhee is a first-rate tour guide through the topographies of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, California, and the glacially scored Midwest.
His hook is the braiding of travelogue and human history within the geologic record. This truly comprehensive style of survey is quite effective in developing a page-turning reading experience. When I purchased this book in a museum bookshop, I prepared myself for what I presumed was quite possibly stuffy and dry. However, much to my pleasant surprise, it's the best science-related text I've read in a very long time. Rising from the Plains stands alone as absolutely outstanding, but the combination of all four remarkable books that comprise Annals of the Former World merit a resounding 5+ stars.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Received as a treasured gift, honored by it., March 21, 2004
By 
Robert (Westcliffe, Colorado) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Annals of the Former World (Paperback)
After daily driving the humpbacked esker from Rangeley to Kingfield Maine with a former student, who was tuned in to my love of the geological processes shaping our world, he gave me McPhee's Annals of the Former World. It was a touching gift that I treasure still, and I read it all. When I moved from Maine to Colorado, I made it a point to use I-80 for as much of the trip as I could, and kept the book in the front seat with me, stopping for breaks to appreciate the work even more. This book is a wonder of writing about a subject almost too large to fit between its covers, yet McPhee has done it. Excellent for any amateur who appreciates the great forces acting on our planet, and who does not see every quake and tremor as signs of impending apocolypse, but rather an ongoing reshaping of our beautiful planet.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Got Geology, June 15, 2006
I never did care much about geology before I read this book. I bought it because it was on my Pulitzer non-fiction list. It is however is such a great read, a third of the way through I was already an amateur geologist looking for structure in rocks everywhere.

With his engaging style the author turns Tectonic Plate Theory into a captivating tale. From Manhattan to Niagara, every landscape has a story to tell and this book helps you hear that story.

Author also provides a new viewpoint in the conflict between environmentalism and consumerism that we constantly face, and helps put into perspective the fleeting presence and short-lived effects of humans on this planet.
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Annals of the Former World
Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Paperback - June 15, 2000)
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