Annals of the Former World: Book 1: Basin and Range & Book 2: In Suspect Terrain

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion yearsTwenty 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. The structure of the book never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under ...

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Annals of the Former World

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Overview

The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion yearsTwenty 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. The structure of the book never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under the overall title Annals of the Former World.Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Vanessa V. Friedman
John McPhee is a writer who could find lyricism and narrative in a garbage can, so it's little wonder than he can find it in rocks. . . .You will never look at a pebble the same way again.
Entertainment Weekly
James Trefil
I know of no author who is better able to give us a feeling for the land we live on than McPhee.
Los Angeles Times
John Skow
Sunlit, brilliant...this book of wonders...ranks with the Journals of Lewis and Clark.
Time Magazine
A.O. Scott
John McPhee has produced, over nearly a quarter of a century, a deep philology of the continent. Annals of the Former World is surely a classic.
Village Voice
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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."
Library Journal
McPhee is the most celebrated contemporary writer on North American geology, and Annals is his magnum opus, combining edited and revised sections from previous works with two new essays.
Booknews
Collects several pieces which originally appeared in The New Yorker along with a new chapter, completing McPhee's 20-year geological exploration of a cross-section of North America. Traveling piecemeal along the 40th parallel, he explores the knowledge and personalities of his various companions — including geologist Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University, the sedimentologist Karen Kleinspehn, Anita Harris and David Love of the US Geological Survey, and the tectonicist Eldridge Moores of the University of California, Davis.
Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Page Stegner
A fascinating drama...a biography of the earth.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Stephen Jay Gould
[McPhee] 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.
The New York Review of Books
William Hines
[McPhee] has a way with words and images that few writers on technical topics can match.
Chicago Sun-Times
Kirkus Reviews
McPhee (Irons in the Fire, 1997, etc.) winds up his artful geohistory of the US by going deep into the heartland — Kansas, Nebraska — in pursuit of deep time: the Precambrian. Included in this collection are his four previous forays into geology — Basin and Range (1981, which, to encapsulate, delineated plate tectonics), In Suspect Terrain (1983, Appalachian geohistory and some broadsides at plate tectonic theory), Rising from the Plains (1986, Wyoming curiosities and environmental conundrums), and Assembling California (1993, a showcase for active tectonics). Here he adds Crossing the Craton — craton being the rock basement of the continent — delving into the realms of "isotopic and chemical signatures, cosmological data, and conjecture," in the company of geochronologist Randy Van Schmus. McPhee has a way of making deep structures seem freestanding, right there to ogle: "the walls of the rift are three thousand feet sheer," they're also 600 feet below the surface. Dexterous as ever, McPhee takes on the creation — early island arcs and vulcanism and microcontinents — and tells it with all the power and simplicity a genesis story deserves.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374105198
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/28/1983
  • Edition description: Signed, Limited Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.64 (w) x 11.33 (h) x 2.44 (d)

Meet the Author

John McPhee is the author of twenty-five books (all published by FSG). He won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 1998 for this work. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Biography

"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

Contents
BOOK 1: BASIN AND RANGE
    Transcontinental Time Line: the Present......................25-28
    Transcontinental Time Line: Late Triassic....................28-31
    Why Would an English Major Write about Rocks?................31-32
    Set Piece on Geologic Time...................................69-99
    Transcontinental Time Lines: Mississippian/Pennsylvanian.....92-95
    Set Piece on Plate Tectonics................................115-31
    Ken Deffeyes Predicts Nevada Seaway.........................137-43
BOOK 2: IN SUSPECT TERRAIN
    The Biography of Anita Harris...............................147-82
    The Geology of New York City................................157-67
    The Delaware Water Gap as a Fragment of the Appalachians146, 182-209
    The Appalachians and Plate Tectonics........................209-44
    The Theory of Continental Glaciation........................254-75
    Origins of Coal.............................................245-48
    Petroleum in Pennsylvania...................................248-51
    Transcontinental Time Lines: Cambrian/Ordovician............189-91
    Transcontinental Time Lines: Early and Late Silurian.......199-201
    Cautionary Arguments about Plate-Tectonic Theory147-49, 217-32, 274-75
BOOK 3: RISING FROM THE PLAINS
    Rawlins and the Spread of Time..............................294-97
    The Laramide Orogeny........................................310-12
    The Burial and Exhumation of the Rocky Mountains............313-16
    Love Ranch and Family History......281-82, 287-94, 299-308, 332-56
    The Geologic History of Jackson Hole and the Tetons.........366-78
    Field Geology v. Black Box Geology..........................380-86
    Set Piece on Geophysical Hot Spots.........................388-403
    Transcontinental Time Line: Eocene..........................409-10
    Wyoming Environmental Montage...............................403-27
    Coal.........................................................404-8
    Oil Shale...................................................412-13
    Trona.......................................................415-16
    Oil and Gas in the Overthrust Belt..........................417-19
    Oil in Yellowstone Park.....................................419-21
    Sedimentary Uranium.........................................421-25
BOOK 4: ASSEMBLING CALIFORNIA
    The Gold Rush of the Nineteenth Century.....................454-72
    Ophiolites: Transported Ocean Crust........................476-511
    The Smartville Block.................479-80, 484-91, 502, 504, 506
    Cyprus......................................................511-19
    Greece......................................................519-26
    Crown King, Arizona.........................................526-35
    The Great Central Valley....................................535-44
    The Coast Ranges............................................544-54
    World Ophiolites and Global Tectonics.......................554-70
    The Geology of San Francisco................................570-81
    The San Andreas Family of Faults...........................581-603
    The Hayward Fault............................................600-2
    1992 Earthquakes, New Fault at Landers and Joshua Tree......587-88
    1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.................................603-20
BOOK 5: CROSSING THE CRATON
    The Midcontinent Rift........624, 628-29, 636, 651, 654-55, 658-59
    The Oldest Rock......................................630, 632, 648
    The Earliest Beginnings of the World........................630-31
    The Archean Cratons.........................................631-33
    The Beginning of Modern Plate Tectonics........................634
    The Coalescence of the Canadian Shield.................633, 636-38
    The Arcs of Nebraska and Colorado...........................638-45
    Radiometric Dating, Magnetic and Gravity Anomalies, and
    Well Cores..................................................645-56
    The Andean Margin of Kansas.................................650-51
    The Perforation of North America............................652-53
    Transcontinental Time Line: Middle Proterozoic..............657-58
    Pikes Peak.....................................................660
List of Maps.......................................................663
Index..............................................................665

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 24, 2010

    Another McPhee wow!

    read the first hundred pages, intending a brief scan. Got it for a summer break r&r; might not last before summer gets here. McPhee is now on the top of my favorite author, read/buy anything by him.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 26, 2013

    John McPhee is a great writer

    I have read McPhee for years and always go back to him every once and awhile. This collection makes geology exciting and informative. For science writing for the layman McPhee is one of the very best!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2012

    An excellent overview of the geology of the North American conti

    An excellent overview of the geology of the North American continent, and more interestingly, the personalities of the people who study it. John McPhee has taken the inorganic matter of geology and has made it personal, by including the stories that shaped the lives and interests of the geologists who dedicate there lives to explain how the earth has come to be. The collection also tells the story of how the science of geology, and more particularly, how the theory of plate tectonics came to be. McPhee vividly paints the drama of the battles of new ideas and theories against the established laws and rules of the science. It's a story any researcher can appreciate. McPhee is an excellent author with a magical knack for taking nonfiction subjects and turning out a narrative that will captivate you from the first to the last page. If one has any interest in the story of the earth, this book is highly recommended.

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  • Posted July 14, 2012

    Highly Recommend

    Although I don't tend to be a fan of Mr. McPhee's geopoetical writing style his research is thorough and relentless and results in a holistic view of this concept of viewing the world through a prism of time that I don't find elseware. Highly recommend!

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    Posted September 24, 2010

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    Posted November 30, 2011

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