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Basin and Range Paperback – April 1, 1982

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Editorial Reviews Review

One of the most valuable tools for the advancement of geological science has in fact been the humble road cut. United States Interstate 80 crosses the entire North American continent, in the process exposing hundreds of millions of years of geological history. In Basin and Range, McPhee, accompanied at times by Princeton geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes, demonstrates how the contorted and tilted rocks seen in these road cuts reveal how islands of the earth's crust have floated across the earth's surface, crashing and folding to form basin and range. This is a masterful and sometimes even poetic volume of popular writing about plate tectonics, communicating the profound satisfaction of using scientific research as a tool for understanding the world around us.

This is the first of four books on North American geology by McPhee, collectively entitled Annals of the Former World. The other volumes are In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California.


In Basin and Range, McPhee is not so much a visiting amateur as a rhapsodist of "deep time" . . . The result is a fascinating book. (Paul Zweig, The New York Times Book Review)

One result of the trip west is an introduction to plate tectonics--probably the most readable summary extant. Geologists will find it sound, others will find it understandable and illuminating. (Geotimes)

He triumphs by succinct prose, by his uncanny ability to capture the essence of a complex issue, or an arcane trade secret, in a well-turned phrase. (Stephen J. Gould, New York Review of Books)

An exciting account of geology and the geologist, providing both an excellent history and an up-to-date snapshot of our science in the 1980s. (Howard R. Gould President, the Geological Society of America)

McPhee has taken on something that all of us--especially the American Geological Institute and its news magazine Geotimes--should take on: the explanation to non-geologists of what geology is all about. (Wendell Cochran, Geotimes)

The best popular portrayal of geology that I have seen in my thirty-two years of experience as a professional geologist. (H. A. Kuehnert, Director, Worldwide Exploration, Phillips Petroleum Company)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition (April 1, 1982)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374516901
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374516901
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #49,141 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By nto62 on June 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
John McPhee's Basin and Range is a layman's geology explaining the formation of mountains and valleys between the Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevadas. McPhee intersperses his geology with an alluring mix of personal insight and travelogue commentary which enlivens an otherwise potentially dry subject matter. McPhee makes geology approachable and uncovers the deep intrigue of a science which can be punishing when presented in textbook style. Basin and Range is a short, interesting, and enjoyable explanation of the earth's early shifts of magnitude.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on April 12, 2002
Format: Paperback
Reading John McPhee is such a delight that one wonders what he would be like as a teacher. Not a journalism instructor, for which he is amply qualified, but declaiming on science, particularly geology. McPhee is a master in understandably describing geologic processes and the people studying them. Under his touch, the stable earth is brought to life, compressing time and traversing space. Watching an aircraft descend for a landing, he muses that in another time its approach path would be deep under water. He explains how different the perception of time is in the mind of a geologist from that of our own. All civilization is but an eyeblink in contrast with the rise and fall of mountains and seas. According to McPhee, what geologists face is summarized in one sentence: "The summit of Mount Everest
is marine limestone."
Not long ago, he reminds us, the world was once considered to be like a drying apple. Some areas shrink driving other places to rise leaving a skin of folds. McPhee describes the history of the idea of plate tectonics and how it confounded this earlier concept. The starting point was an understanding of the earth's age. A Scottish "gentleman," James Hutton was an astute observer and an eloquent speaker. Putting his findings in writing, however, "trampled people with words." Hutton revealed the vast duration of time required to form earth's vistas. He was followed by a herald of Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell. Between them, the age of the earth and of life replaced the established biblical origins. In effect, Hutton had taken the next major step in science after Copernicus. Plate tectonics, a group, rather than an individual's insight, opened new fields of research and provided more detailed views of Earth's processes.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By john elder on March 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
John McPhee's Basin and Range kept me wanting to read more, right up to the very end. His style was very interesting, keeping his story on basin and range full of knowledge. He describes two of North America's past basin and range provinces. An ancient one which was once along America's eastern seaboard and the active basin and range which is centered in Nevada. Even for those who are not knowlegdable on geology this is an easily understood book. I would recommend this book to anyone that enjoys to read, especially someone that is interested in learning about our natural environment.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 3, 1998
Format: Paperback
As a student of geology, I enthusiastically gulped down this book- it gives a great overview of not only the Basin and Range history but touches on the geologic history of the entire continent. My only complaint about this and McPhee's similar works is his tendancy to rhapsodize on geologic terms in a very wordy fashion. Those interested in the science rather than McPhee's preoccupation with the geologic language may be tempted to skip pages at a time. However this is a fantastic book for information and digestible by aspiring geologists at all levels of proficiency.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Leslie on April 16, 2002
Format: Paperback
Geologic insight and humorous tangents abound in John McPhee's Basin and Range. In this book, McPhee describes to a more or less lay audience the formation processes of the Basin and Range. This book was written as part of a series of geology along Interstate-80. In this initial volume, McPhee lays the groundwork for the complicated processes that created the Basin and Range as well as giving readers a sort of compressed introduction to plate tectonics, geologic time and terminology.
He begins the book in New Jersey, three thousand miles from what readers know as the Basin and Range province. Though his motive is not entirely clear, one may be able to detect that McPhee is showing a possible evolutionary movement for the Basin and Range where the processes occurring in the province today may lead to a morphology similar to present-day New Jersey. Rather than straightforwardly addressing the Basin and Range (as a textbook may do), McPhee opts to intersperse his discussion of the landscape with discussions of nomenclature to geologic time to the unreliability of a geologist as a driver. When the author does directly confront the Basin and Range it is nothing overwhelming-some block faulting here, dry lakebeds there-in an attempt to make the geology sound simplistic when that could hardly be farther from true.
While the book has definite merit as a primer on geologic formation processes of the Basin and Range, the reader is forced to compete with McPhee's flowery stream-of-conscience writing style. A reader with no geologic background may be able to glean some information from this book. That which is gained, however, will be more subtle and anecdotal than anything else. While McPhee's simplification of the processes that formed the Basin and Range may be helpful at an amateur level, it may as well be frustrating and cannot compete with the knowledge one would gain from reading a more formal publication.
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