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In Suspect Terrain Paperback – January 1, 1984

ISBN-13: 978-0374517946 ISBN-10: 0374517940 Edition: Reissue

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition (January 1, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374517940
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374517946
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #400,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

The Delaware Water Gap, where the Delaware River cuts through the Appalachian Mountains, is a bucolic and peaceful landscape perhaps best known as the setting of Edward Hicks's famous painting, The Peaceable Kingdom. However, the calm landscape conceals the tortuous geological history of this region and the equally complex debates concerning the geological past of the eastern United States.

In Basin and Range, McPhee traveled across the United States with a strong proponent of plate tectonics. In this volume, he travels over some of the same terrain with Anita G. Harris, a geologist who questions the ability of plate tectonics to completely explain the geology of this part of the world. As always, McPhee conveys the brilliant enthusiasms of those he profiles and the engaging complexity of the disciplines within which they work.

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


“This is a book you cannot put down...It provides a great deal of information about the way many geologists think about science...and about the necessity for continual questioning and revising of new and old ideas. This is the best way science can remain healthy and continue to grow.”—Robert D. Hatcher, Jr., Natural History
“John McPhee does what no other writer has done ... He makes the earth move.” --R. Z. Sheppard, Time

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

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By tertius3 on August 10, 2000
Format: Paperback
McPhee writes elegantly plain English. He finds awesome beauty under foot, in vistas, and in words. His fine and pleasing writing deftly evokes the prodigious forces that shaped the landscape along Interstate 80 from Brooklyn to Chicago. McPhee is a magician: he makes deep geological time come so alive you can almost feel the earth move under your feet as it responds to the titanic forces of shifting continents, water, and ice.
McPhee writes epitomes of geological processes: here glacial forms (and diamonds!) in Indiana, there the Delaware Water Gap, or fossil thermometry by his "tour guide" Anita Harris, frank embarrassments to plate tectonics, Appalachian mountain making, petroleum cooking, or again the Ice Ages. This paean to nature, without mysticism, is printed in an old fashioned typeface on quality paper. It has no maps, sections, or illustrations. If you indexed the somewhat non-linear text yourself, this would be an instructive companion to take along on your next trip on eastern Route 80 (or an entire traverse of America if you add the other three books in McPhee's impressive "cross-section" of North America: Rising from the Plain, Basin & Range, Assembling California).
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By nto62 on June 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
In Suspect Terrain by John McPhee details the geology of Interstate 80 from the Delaware Water Gap to the state of Indiana. Primarily concerned with the formation of the Appalachians, the intrusion and withdrawal of vast inland seas, and the impact of widespread glaciation, the book introduces us to Anita Harris, a geologist who is less enamored of plate tectonic theory than most. Though far from discounting the theory altogether, Harris, through McPhee, displays for the reader several "tectonic" inconsistencies prevalent in the Appalachian region.

As in Basin and Range, a previous work, McPhee brings a traveler's commentary and an historian's insight to the scientific discussion making geology, perhaps, more enticing to the layman than anyone who has come before him. Indeed, were all science so artfully presented us commonfolk might have a better grasp of that which can often confuse and intimidate. I thoroughly enjoyed In Suspect Terrain and look eagerly forward to other McPhee efforts.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 31, 2002
Format: Paperback
Whatever drove John McPhee to writing of geology should be found and packaged. It would find a ready market in university science departments. This finest of American essayists produced a series of exemplary books on how North America came to be. His journeys gleaning the information he provides us, traversed the continent, chiefly along an Interstate highway, examining roadcuts, adjacent outcrops and surrounding mountains. His guides were America's foremost geologists, their work often hiding them from the public gaze. McPhee brings them into view, relating their work, their personalities, their accomplishment through unmatched descriptive prose.
In this book, McPhee teams up with geologist Anita Harris in touring the eastern mountains of North America from the coast to the southern shores of the Great Lakes. The journey is far more than the examination and cataloging of rocks. McPhee has elsewhere expressed his sense of history with peerless ability. Here, he extends history to deep time as he and Harris examine the formation of the Appalachian Mountain chains. The lithic record, as might be imagined, is hardly clear-cut. Rock formations are jumbled, twisted, folded over in a confusing testimony to the Earth's action in forming continents. McPhee, in the beginning, is as confused as the rocks - and the reader. Harris, with admirable patience, explains the rocks and what they express, helping McPhee, and us, to see their history. "I haven't worked at this level since I don't know when," she says of his novice status. Her knowledge and his prose skills manage to advance our knowledge painlessly. The rocks, however, daunt their efforts to paint a uncomplicated picture.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Victor A. Spooner on September 24, 2005
Format: Paperback
McPhee can do it all: explain a complex scientific concept in clean, clear prose; perfectly divine and express the poetic nature underlying seemingly mundane geologic features; conjure up vivid panoramas of worlds lost deep in geologic time; and, no less amazingly, make us actually believe that we even personally like the brilliant, but crass, Doctor Anita Harris! Like Basin and Range, and La Place de la Concorde Suisse, very well written and wonderfully told.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Crawford on June 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book, in which McPhee follows an original and stolid geologist on her job and records her musings and concerns with her science. It is written in absolutely luminous prose, with a clarity that can only be called perfect. As he travels with the geologist, ideas keep cropping up that are explained and examined, sometimes adding historical context, such as the long passages on Agassiz. I enjoyed the flow of the narrative and it held my interest completely, indeed I was in awe of his writing talent.
In my reading, there were two principal scientific ideas. First, McPhee lets the geologist question the pervasive acceptance of plate tectonics, that is, how it is now the first explanation that geologists seek to advance, which may mean that they do not seek alternative explanations when appropriate. More specifically, the geologist accepts the theory for oceanic plates, but not the land/continental versions. She chafes against the preference of many young geologists to create micro-plates for every new unexplained phenomenon, a kind of reductionism that may be similar to that used by proponents of "heavenly spheres" to explain the motions of the planets prior to Kepler and Newton. Second, McPhee goes over the notion of glacial ice flows and what they explain about the current landscapes. As I was quite ignorent of these theories except in the crudest outline, I learned a lot from this. What I cannot do is evaluate whether, after 20 years, this book is outdated, which it almost certainly is.
Beyond those 2 issues, the reader also gets to know how geologists work and think, which was equally fascinating and pleasurable for me.
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