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Annals of the Former World by John McPhee
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Annals of the Former World (1998)

by John McPhee

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Annals of the Former World (omnibus)

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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
This review of this book won’t be long, not only because it took me a full two months to finish it, which would have required me to go back to review what I read waaay back then, but also because my mind is not well adapted to the minutiae of scientific discourse. I would have a very difficult time recounting what I read in any coherent way.

Having said that however, I really did enjoy this book. I love science in the only way a historian can, by exploring its effects on people, society and culture. It was with that mindset that I began reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.

This work is essentially a geological travelogue, an amalgam of five books that describes the history of the formation of the earth. But rather than trying to present it in a dry, linear way that most assuredly would have induced me to put it down within the first dozen pages or so, McPhee chose to structure the book in a unique and effective way; using trips he took across America along Interstate 80 – the only highway that traverses the entire country – as the anchor point to which the narrative always returns. Accompanied by noted geologists along the way, he uses their observations to illuminate how the earth was initially formed and how it evolved.

Much of the book is steeped in geological jargon – rock types, formations, faults, tectonics etc. I learned very quickly that I was not going to be able to stop and look up every one of these terms if I ever wanted to finish the book. So, rather than attempt that I simply let them flow by me as I tried to grasp the overall story that was being told. And you know what? It kind of worked. Occasionally I found myself getting lost, but McPhee is such an excellent writer that he always pulled me back just in time. So while I could not begin to explain to you much of what I read, in my minds eye I understand what he was trying to get across.

My favorite parts of the book however, were those sections that deviated from the science of geology and moved into how the geology he was describing affected people,society and culture. In academic terms geology is as much a humanity as it is a science. It is so complex, and has so many interlocking parts that interpretation of data is often as much intuition as it is analysis. Geology is also more than just the science of rocks; it also has very important implications for how life formed and evolved on Earth, and how societies rose, fell, and rose again. Particularly effective are his narratives describing some of this. His recounting of the gold rush in the mid 19th century, and how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California made its effects felt stand out here. Lastly he includes some old fashioned biography, including sketches of some of the early pioneers in the field of geology and a very moving one of one of his travel partners – Dr. David Love of Wyoming.

I cannot say this book was easy to read; long stretches were almost incomprehensible to me. It required me to internalize and come to grips with descriptions of vast periods of time. But McPhee is such an outstanding writer that he always brought me back into the narrative in such a way that by the end of every set piece I had a grasp of what he was trying to convey. And at the end I felt I had acquired a real appreciation for the stunning complexity of the history of earth’s formation and evolution; and more importantly how that history is intimately entwined, with the creation and evolution of the life forms living on it. It really is two parts of the same story.

If you have the time and have any interest in science, or feel like getting out of your comfort zone for a while, I highly recommend this book! ( )
  mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
I only read Basin and Range, for Bookclub.
I'm not sure I would have picked it for myself but I found it very interesting. It didn't always stay on target and the meanderings could get tedious but parts were well-written and very engaging. The biggest complaint I had was that it never started and ended. I felt like I came in during the middle and left there as well. Perhaps if I read the reamning books in the compilation, it will seem different.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
For starters, do not be intimidated by the subject matter: geology. McPhee writes with a folksy tone. Right away he is calling the reader "friend." This is not to say the content of "Crossing the Craton" has been dumbed down. It hasn't. McPhee doesn't spare the reader from words like brachiopods, samarain, neodymium and nautiloids and his timelines are a confusing mess. It takes some getting used to but I have to say this, reading about the oldest rock (35 billion years old) from the Minnesota River Valley is pretty fascinating. "Crossing the Craton" is the last chapter in his behemoth book, Annals of the Former World and probably the shortest. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Jun 16, 2014 |
Read the Assembling California section: in 1994 there was 67% chance that there would be a big quake in the Bay Area before 2020... the clock is still ticking.

Too much geology lingo without a glossary, but what a writer he is! Such clean, precise, quietly suggestive description, whether it's geological, topographical, or human interest. To return to at will.

( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
McPhee makes science sing. ( )
  schmicker | Apr 19, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John McPheeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Funk, TomGeologic time scalesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kawabata, JulieIndexsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Krupat, CynthiaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374518734, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:21 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Twenty years ago, when John McPhee began his journeys back and forth across the United States, he planned to describe a cross-section of North America at about the fortieth parallel and, in the process, come to an understanding not only of the science but of the style of the geologists he traveled with." "Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a many-layered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it, guided by twenty-five new maps and the "Narrative Table of Contents" (an essay outlining the history and structure of the project). Read sequentially, the book is an organic succession of set pieces, flashbacks, biographical sketches, and histories of the human and lithic kind; approached systematically, it can be a North American geology primer, an exploration of plate tectonics, or a study of geologic time and the development of the time scale."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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