Annals of the Former World

ISBN: 0374518734
ISBN 13: 9780374518738
By: John McPhee

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Reader's Thoughts


Once upon a time I was a geology student. In gloomy Victorian halls and on sunny limestone outcrops we tried to get siltstones and schists and garnets to sing to us, to reveal their secrets.Sadly, as in all the sciences, many geologists aren't very good storytellers. That's why we have John McPhee. Through his prose, mountains tell their stories. While the stories collected in Annals of the Former World, don't compare to his masterful The Control of Nature, their still pretty wonderful. Geology is the centerpiece, but it's also biography, human history, and aesthetics. Landscape is no longer two-dimensional, but four-dimensional and visionary.

Ben Crandell

This is a collection of geology books. Each book focuses on a geologic province of North America, so there are five books describing the five geologic provinces of North America. McPhee pals around with the respective expert of each province and interprets the "big picture" of geology to us all. This book- these five books - tell a history of Earth which puts our own human existence in a different perspective. John McPhee is the king of scientific analogies. Very well done.


What a mind-blowingly comprehensive compilation of writing on a geologic cross section of America through characterizations of off-beat geniuses and possessed rock-hounds. Totally awesome. I was reading part of this while on a bus with students heading East on I-80 through Wyoming and was totally enraptured with the very interpretation through the book of the bleak landscape surrounding me. Who knew I was looking at billions of years in time with a mere 50 minute drive from point to point? That I crossed a gangplank and while I thought I was on flat high prairie I was in fact standing on ancient mountains buried in sand, silt, river rock, and other, older, eroded mountainsides?


This is one of the best layman's books on geology I've read. John McPhee makes something that could be incredibly dry vivid and entertaining. He also grapples with the controversy surrounding the acceptance of plate tectonics. I highly recommend it.

William Korn

John McPhee ranks among the greatest essayists of his time. He has the uncanny ability to make fascinating any endeavor of human beings, science, or nature from the travails of driving a hazmat truck to the beauties of the Alaskan wilderness to the construction and operation of canoes. His writing style is a marvel to behold, and he keeps his readers honest by not dumbing down the narrative. McPhee will never use a 50-cent word when a $5 word is available.When the subject of his essay happens to coincide with his personal interests, the result is even more astounding. McPhee's love of geology resulted in this collection of four books describing the geology of the United States as he experienced it by driving back and forth along Interstate 80 in the company of renowned geologists. Beyond mere description, McPhee describes in detail the theory of plate tectonics, which was being hotly debated at the time he started. He shamelessly bandies about all the bewildering terms geologists love so much, but makes a real effort to explain them in terms a non-geologist can understand.Another of the talents that makes McPhee a great writer is his ability get into rapport not only with his subject but with the people from whom he gets his information. Each person he interviews in virtually every book he writes comes with a biography that is in many cases as interesting as the subject of the essay.There are very few John McPhee books or articles that I would rank less than "5 stars". This collection is beyond five stars.

Jeff Bach

As a geology major, a former gold miner, and finally as a hydrogeologist, the earth and its water have always fascinated me. Reading John McPhee is always a delight because he takes what remains mostly a poorly done body of work in mostly scientific terms and turns an explanation of how the earth came to be into a readable and engaging topic. Something just about anyone can enjoy provided they have the curiosity and interest in wondering how so much stunning geography came to be where it is and what it is.Well done John McPhee!Great Read!

Darryl Brashier

This is a book of books. The book is an anthology of four previous books and a fifth published for the first time with this book. It covers geology, history, politics and more. It's a travel book and a fascinating look at geologists and their evolving views of the world as plate tectonics rewrote their science.The broad sweep of the book is the geology of the American continent: how it came to be, how it changed through the ages. The anchor for this look is Interstate 80, running from New York City to San Francisco. Along the way, the reader will find the vast plains, the mountains coming up and wearing away, the sea flooding in and retreating, the ice sheets planing away the soil and rocks to pile them again in new geologic features.Amidst all of this, John McPhee keeps us reminded that there are two time scales - the slow progressions of geology and the very recent and oh-so-brief lives that we live. He writes of the Donner Party, the exploration of the West, the Gold Rush, the oil boom, the mapping of the Appalachians and so much more and always the lives of the geologists with whom McPhee himself explores the country.It's not always an easy book, with all the talk of rocks that are hard to conjure, like the basalts, granites, serpentine, gabbro and such, but McPhee writes with such magic that they roll through the sentences without bringing you down to textbook plodding. He also brings the long ages of the geology to human scale with stories of times where the two time scales intersect in earthquakes and avalanches.It's magnificent.

Lorne S.

The expression "it's written in stone" couldn't be more true than the story told in this magnificent tale of one writer's journey across a continent in the company of some of the world's leading geologists.Mr. McPhee isn't afraid of using the correct scientific terminology, isn't worried that the verbiage might be over the heads of many readers. The result is a satisfying read that doesn't insult the intelligence of the reader because, above all else, his writing style is both informative AND entertaining, without any need to "dumb it down" into monosyllabic pap.The story unfolds kaleidoscopically, beginning in New Jersey, then away to the West along Highway 81, through many unlikely times and places such as an old silent-era Mack Sennett movie, Butch Cassidy's Hole-In-The-Wall gang and a world series baseball game interrupted by a devastating earthquake, and even a multi-million-dollar silver find in what was suppoed to be an exhausted tailings pile.From the professor of geology trying to inspire fresh new minds in the classroom to the weekend rock hound, to the armchair surfer just looking for a thick and well written tome to help pass rainy days, this book is an excellent choice.


A little out of date, but the only book to tackle the topic at an easy and interesting read. I used the audio version for several of the sections, but had the paper copy handy to look at the graphics, of which there could have been more. I'd like to see someone's update, and also to find the same slightly-more-than-layman read on other areas, such as the Brevard Zone in the southeast US. Someone should also come up with an annotated version as a travel guide, with lat/long of the points of interest.

Lois Bujold

A most excellent remedy for insomnia, and (speaking as a sufferer) I do not mean that pejoratively. The perfect book for reading a little bit at bedtime every night, easy to pick up and put down, but still worth the reading. It lasted me about 6 weeks; not sure what I'll use now. (Well, I suppose there's still E. O. Wilson's The Ants, but I'm not sure my arms are strong enough to hold it up...)Layer by layer, McPhee sediments one's grasp of deep time, and of the geologists who study it. A little too accessible to be called "magisterial", but it still evokes that feeling. I would also recommend it as an antidote for the news. Highly recommended, not that it apparently needs my approval. I'm glad it won the Pulitzer, in its day.Ta, L.


This is 5 volumes in 1 book: Basin & Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, Assembling California and Crossing the Craton. John McPhee, accompanied by a different geologist in each book, describes the geology along I-80 between New York and San Francisco, with some side jaunts along the way. McPhee also tells us about the backgrounds of the geologists. The most interesting back story is the family history of David Love, U.S. Geological Survey, the grand old man of Rocky Mountain Geology, in Rising from the Plains.This is a huge book but it's well worth reading. I've never read a bad book by John McPhee and he makes this accessible for the non-geologist but interesting for geologists too. USGS offices should have copies of McPhee's books for sale in their lobbies.One of the things that I found interesting reading (actually re-reading the first 4 books after I read book 5, which is only available by reading this book) is how Geology was revolutionized by Plate Tectonics theory and how that theory has evolved since I was in college in the 1980's. McPhee also presents the view points of geologists who challenge aspects of Plate Tectonics based on what they found in the field.McPhee wrote these books over 20 years. For this combined volume, he updated all 5 books here and there. He also ties it all together in a brief introduction.This book makes me want to hop in my car with my rock hammers and visit some of those road cuts!


Wonderful narrative elucidating the geological history of the United States, told in 5 parts by writer Jon McPhee, who made a career of traveling I-80 with several geologists. What I like most is the way he shows concrete, relevant examples that prove the effects are still happening. For example, p. 235, where he describes how the Pennsylvania Turnpike can be broken up within 20 years. Another early part talks about boulders being swept into a small town in Nevada. This book is really a collection of five separate works. "Rising from the Plains," was my favorite. it's the geology of the Rockies, and the story of David Love, who followed in his mother and father's footsteps to understand the subject matter as much as a pioneer and steward as he was a scientist.


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!


Probably one of the best books I have ever read. Be prepared for some geologic rigamarole and a sense of patience and the timeline of ages will unfold. Its a compilation of all of McPhee's writings about American continental Geology. I know, sounds dull, but he uses the lives and characters of the Geologists whose work he is describing along with the massive narrative arc of plate tectonics and the history of the science itself. The story of America's westward expansion along with the Romantic era of northeastern America all seem to blend into a text that can miraculously also explain geomorphology and other remarkably dry topics. Gives the vast expanses of time a tiny human scale which we can then wonder at how our ancestors saw these places as well as the painstaking detective work that was critical to our understanding of how they formed, where these places came from and how in something as seemingly stolid as the ground beneath our feet is a plastic and still changing skin manipulated by forces beyond human comprehension. Utterly beautiful work–I know of nothing else like it.

Rex Fuller

This is the equivalent of college survey courses in geology and the history of geology. And like such courses it is sloooow going at times but worth the effort. You probably have to have more than a mild interest in the subject matter to start with in order to stay with it.

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