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Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

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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Nonfiction. The geologic history of the United States as discovered by studying its roadcuts. This book is large and heavy enough to be a weapon. It changes how you look at everyday surroundings. How you pass through the world. And your understanding of place, time, and impact. That's just for starters. ( )
  sussura | Sep 29, 2018 |
What a splendid way to learn some geology! I have driven I-80 across most of the USA so much of the landscape discussed here is quite familiar to me. But I sure learned a lot about the processes that brought that landscape into being!

It was a great help that all the geological ages - Devonian etc. - are mapped out on the end papers. But I gave up looking for them and just let the detailed chronologies wash over me. I may not become a geologist in this life! There is an awful lot of information in this book. Could it have been better with fewer details and more structure? In a way though part of the book is about what geologists don't know. Sometimes the data fit the theory quite nicely. Sometimes there is a fair amount of interpretation and story-telling required to see how the theory can plausibly explain the data. Sometimes it's quite a stretch. And sometimes the data is just thumbing its nose at the poor scientist. The deluge of information that McPhee presents helps show the problem of the scientist trying to make sense of all that. ( )
  kukulaj | Mar 16, 2017 |
Staggering, and almost staggeringly long. Turns out this is a McPhee masterwork, as he complements his profound knowledge of geology by criss-crossing the United States in the company of assorted eminent geologists, figuring out how the continent came to be the way it is now. Particularly enjoyed the chapter about how California has been formed by island chains running up against the continent, and how the faults at the joins allowed the gold to dissolve out and get deposited, eventually leading to the rush of the mid 1800's which kept the Union afloat during the civil war.

The strongest impression I am left with is the staggering part - the vast scales of geological time which can push up vast mountain ranges, have them worn down by rain and wind and ice, creating yet new landscapes from the immense quantities of runoff, and all of this be just a minor episode in the grand scheme of things. ( )
  Matt_B | Nov 24, 2015 |
Like a long hard hike, but so well worth it. John Mc Phee does his very best to keep you engaged with a description of US geology adjacent to I-80. Your mind is stretched by the staggering time scale and the effort to imagine geologic processes in four dimensions. You need to plough on over some of the difficulties because they are not the book.
The human element is provided by the geologists who accompany McPhee. These people are as fascinating as the subject they love. Their devotion to geology is illustrated in a tribute to Dr. David Love, from pioneer stock in Wyoming, who became a legend in his science.
The Fourth Book, "Assembling California" resonates here in New Zealand with our gold rush of the 1860's and the presence of the Alpine Fault. The accounts from the Loma Prieta Earthquake (1989) make sobering reading.
You feel as if you've achieved something worthwhile when you come to the end. ( )
  ivanfranko | Oct 30, 2015 |
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 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John McPheeprimary authorall editionscalculated
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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:18 -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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