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Assembling California Paperback – February 1, 1994


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

As an explainer, John McPhee is a national treasure. The longtime "New Yorker" staff writer has taken us inside the world of art museums, environmental groups, fruit markets, airship factories, basketball courts, and atomic-bomb labs the world over. Here he covers the complex geological history of California, the source of much news today. As Californians daily await the inevitable great earthquake that will send their cities tumbling down like so many matchsticks, McPhee piles fact on luminous fact, wrestling raw data into a beautifully written narrative that gainsays a sedimentologist's warning: "You can't cope with this in an organized way," he told McPhee, "because the rocks aren't organized." As always, McPhee enlarges our understanding of the strange, making it familiar--and endlessly interesting.

From Publishers Weekly

In his usual clean, graceful prose, McPhee takes readers on an intensive geological tour of California, from the Sierra Nevada through wine country to the San Andreas fault system, a 50-mile-wide swath of parallel fault lines. Through talks with his traveling companion, geologist Eldridge Moores, McPhee introduces the reader to current geological controversies, and surveys global plate tectonics--the collision and rearrangement of land masses ever since the breakup of the supercontinent of Pangaea eons ago. The duo also travel to Arizona, where Moores grew up pushing ore carts in his family's gold mine, and to Cyprus and Greece, where rock from the ocean floor has been tossed up to form continents. McPhee looks at the conjectural science of earthquake prediction and gives an account of a recent San Francisco quake. His leisurely excavation meanders from Mexican explorer Juan Bautista de Anza's settlement of San Francisco in 1776 to 1850s gold-mining camps to the summit of Mount Everest, made of marine limestone lifted from a shelf that once divided India and Tibet. With this volume McPhee concludes his Annals of the Former World series, which he began with Basin and Range (1980). Illustrated.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (February 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374523932
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374523930
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #61,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on April 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
If anyone tells you "science destroys beauty," respond by handing them a McPhee. Any of his works will suffice, but this one is a special treasure. It's the completion of a continent-wide tour across the United State. McPhee escorts a succession of geologists who have explained to him why the theory of continental drift requires revision. The modifiers are local geological conditions, each region telling its own tale of lithic activity. In California, the story becomes almost bizarre. John McPhee might well be considered the only writer of science who could present the story in understandable fashion. Perhaps, but he would counter that in Eldridge Moores, he enjoyed a tutor of exceptional value to guide him.
The idea of plate tectonics was a revolution in viewing the earth. Previous thinking was nearly all limited to regional, often arcane, activity. Plate tectonics was the first truly global image of the planet's workings. It was elegant, universal, and it explained so much, so well, that fitting it to conditions was almost simple. Plates move, crunch one another, raise mountains, often with spewing volcanoes, and end their career by sinking below the crust. Look at a map of California [easy to do, since there's one at the front of the book]. It all seems so manifestly organized. Parallel mountain ranges running north-south, separated by logically placed valleys. But the Sierra Nevada stands in lofty majesty compared to the Coast Range standing west across the Great Valley. It shouldn't.
According to Moores, that's symptomatic. By plate tectonics' definition, it should be the Coast Range that should rising in reaction to the pressure of the continental movement. And why is the Great Valley so wide if a whole continent is trying to crowd the Sierra Nevada west?
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 30, 1998
Format: Paperback
In Assembling California, John McPhee has once again shown why he has been described as the dean of literary non-fiction. As he unfolds the geologic story of the state, he manages to seamlessly weave two time scales--geologic and human--into a single compelling story. It is a geology text packaged as literature that will leave you thinking "if all geology texts were written like this, I might have majored in geology." Like his earlier books in the series, starting with Rising from the Plains, he has latched onto an expert geologist and followed him across the globe. One difference is that Rising from the Plains was as much a story of the geologist as the geology. In Assembling California, Eldridge Moores serves primarily as the teacher rather than also as a subject. It isn't always an easy read. When terms like syncline, ophiolite, diabase dikes, and subduction zones are flying at you fast and furiously, even readers with technical backgrounds will frequently have to come up for air. The book cries out for two additions: a glossary and an index. In their absence, you are well advised to take detailed notes. Some of the descriptions would also have benefitted from good illustrations. (The few diagrams included illustrate rather basic points.) Overall, however, McPhee does an excellent job of casting light on what is often considered an arcane subject.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Skippy on May 30, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Assembling California is a flawed McPhee jewel. It is about the titanic collision of tectonic plates that has - over hundreds of millions of years - pushed California up off the ocean floor and smashed it into the western United States.

Lovers of McPhee's great works such as Levels of the Game and The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden of Deerfield will find all the familiar treats: wonderful anecdotes and word portraits of people and places. But there are great frustrations here too. McPhee constantly refers to geological phenomena - cuttings in freeways, coloured minerals and landscapes - that require more than just dense sprays of verbiage to deepen the reader's understanding and sustain their interest.

I longed for about 20-30 pages of coloured plates, maps, aerial photos and diagrams to illustrate the concepts and places that McPhee describes. Never has the old cliché that a picture is worth 1,000 words been truer than in Assembling California. The book also needs a really good glossary of terms and a more reader-friendly diagram of the epochs of geologic time.

The result is either a lazy book (it would have taken too much effort to compile the illos) or a cheap book (it would have been much more expensive to print colour plates). McPhee sells on the quality of his words and I couldn't help feeling that the publisher traded on this fact to avoid the time and cost of making this a completely satisfying production.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Luis P. Fernandez on August 10, 2000
Format: Paperback
My firsthand experience of living in Northern California has endeared me to its fascinating geology, for not too many places on earth have seen so much upheaval: from transform faults to terranes banging against the continent, the uplift of melange complexes from the seafloor, and the splendid manifestation of batholiths that is the Sierra Nevada. A drive from Tahoe to San Francisco takes you across ancient batholiths to the fore-arc basin of the Central Valley and ultimately to the melange and suspect terrane mosaic that is the Coast Ranges, Twin Peaks, and the Marin Headlands.
What John McPhee's book successfully delivers is an accessible cross-section of the geology of the golden state at your fingertips, including those, including myself, who wax nostalgic about being a former inhabitant of this geologic wonderland. McPhee explains not only geologic processes but also how geology affected exploration and exploitation of the state's resources. The geology is not dead, for it resonates to this day and to the far future, what with the awesome power yet to be unleashed from California's labyrinthine faults and from the still burgeoning mass of the Cascade volcanoes to the north. Nevertheless, McPhee gives a personal and friendly touch to California's big-time geology.
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