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Annals of the Former World Paperback – June 15, 2000

4.6 out of 5 stars 171 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In 1978 New Yorker magazine staff writer John McPhee set out making notes for an ambitious project: a geological history of North America, centered, for the sake of convenience, on the 40th parallel, a history that encompasses billions of years. In 1981 he published the first of the four books that would come from his research: Basin and Range, a study of the mountainous lands between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas. Two years later came In Suspect Terrain, a grand overview of the Appalachian mountain system. In 1986 McPhee released Rising from the Plains, a history of the Rocky Mountains set largely in Wyoming. And in 1993 came Assembling California, a survey of the area geologists find to be a laboratory of volcanic and tectonic processes, a place where geology can be watched in the making. Annals of the Former World gathers these four volumes, which McPhee always conceived of as a whole, to make that epic of the Earth's formation; to it he adds a fifth book, Crossing the Craton, which introduces the continent's ancient core, underlying what is now Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

A feast for all John McPhee fans, this major book incorporates some of the author's best work on geology into a comprehensive tour de force. Those familiar with McPhee's writing on the subject of geology will know that his narrative includes not only scientific theory but also portraitures of his geologic guides. While the majority of this material has appeared in the New Yorker and in books such as Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain and Rising from the Plains, the collection, which includes 20,000 new words, is much more than a recycling of past writing. As McPhee says, "The text has been meshed, melded, revised, in some places cut, and everywhere studied for repetition." McPhee's many fans won't be disappointed with the high-quality descriptive portraits of geologists, their work and theories. Since the writing follows McPhee's previous works and not any set geography or geologic logic, the author has provided what he calls a "Narrative Table of Contents," which not only describes each section in turn but the theories discussed in it. In this near flawless compilation of ambitious and expansive scope, McPhee's personalized style remains consistent and triumphant: "Ebbets Field, where they buried the old Brooklyn Dodgers, was also on the terminal moraine. When a long-ball hitter hit a long ball, it would land on Bedford Avenue and bounce down the morainal front to roll toward Coney Island on the outwash plain. No one in Los Angeles would ever hit a homer like that." 25 maps, not seen by PW.
Copyright 1998 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: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (June 15, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374518734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374518738
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (171 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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).
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Format: 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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: 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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