Annals of the Former World

ISBN: 0374518734
ISBN 13: 9780374518738
By: John McPhee

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Reader's Thoughts


A little out of date, but the only book to tackle the topic at an easy and interesting read.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.

Karen Banks

It is a massive book at 712 pages; however, I have learned a lot about the geology of the United States and the rest of the world. My initial interest was sparked by the focus on the land along Interstate 80 from New Jersey to California, parts of which I know well and travel often. I have had questions about the sometimes sudden changes in terrain. McPhee helped to explain this. Once I started the book, he mentioned a course that I considered taking to meet my science requirement at Princeton, Rocks for Jocks (of course, it has an official title, but that's how we all knew it). Now, I wish I had taken the course. For anyone considering this book, it is not a single sitting book. I put it down often, sometimes for months at a time. But I could always pick up where I left off. The stories of the people of an area or of the geologists or of the political conditions (there was an interesting piece about the Civil War and the railroads that tied in)make the book more than one about geology. I have The McPhee Reader and his book on the Pine Barrens is on my to be read list. I plan to delve into these when time allows.

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.

Barrett Doherty

Annals of the Former World is a highly complex yet compelling study of the story of the geography of the US. It is dense with multiple story lines, about the people and concepts of modern geology, weaving throughout the five shorter novels collected into this one tome. McPhee does a masterful job at examining and elucidating the various theories and ideas that leap together on the page to form the bedrock of geology today from plate tectonics, glaciation, shields, hot spots and island arcs. It is a dizzying yet masterful tour of the deep history of the land. Taking I-80 from NY to SF as a section cut of the US, he explores the various ages and regions that have exhibited themselves through millions of years and how and where they appear today. Interwoven into this compelling narrative are the stories of the geologists that McPhee spends extensive time with exploring all the road cuts and points of interest along the way. These anecdotes add a surprising humanity to the work that serves to underscore the change and historical influences that are being explored in the underlying rock. McPhee has a particular affection for the moments when geological time and human time intersect. The stories about the California Gold Rush are particularly compelling as are seismic jumps that are more commonly known as earthquakes. At moments, the page can become weighted down by scientific jargon as one might expect for such a in-depth study of science. But McPhee combats this by repetition. He continually presents the ideas from different angles so that through time the ideas become more commonplace. It won the Pulitzer Prize and it is easy to understand why.I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the story of how the land came to be. Fascinating and daunting much like the subject itself.


Remember driving along a highway and passing through a road cut where the layers of stone in the hillside rise and descend as you pass. John McPhee began to wonder about these roadcuts and over several years compiled a geologic history of the United States through interviews and feild trips with geology professors from New York to San Francisco. His epic adventure immerses readers in deep deep time, a complex poetry of terminology, and a fascinating array of personal stories. He continually reconnects the geology of the narrative to the reader through frequent references to history and periodic sprinklings of wry humor. And it's not all geology; You'll be amazed by Geologist David Love's family history and thrilled and appalled at the rapid-fire recounts of experiences of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1988, when slabs of double-decker highway dropped onto commuter vehicles and Candlestick Park shook duriing the world Series. This is not a strictly layman's book. The language is dense, the concepts unfamiliar, and the few illustrations, diagrams and maps insufficient to clarify much of the text. However, McPhee possesses the sensibilities of both journalist and poet. While the reader may have to soldier through ignornance and inexperience at times, the 660 page journey creates a satisfying understanding of the precepts and questions posed by geologists and geology and a grounding sense of the theory of geological time and the formation of the surface of our planet. Overall, it makes me feel small and ephemeral.

Ben Bedard

An instant classic of nonfiction, this book is simply a masterpiece. A book that shows us the earth we live on in fascinating detail and history. From the Precambrian to the San Francisco earthquakes of the twentieth century, John McPhee illuminates the vast amount of history under out feet. If you've ever had an interest in rocks or continental history, or wanted to explore how mountains came to be, this is a book you must own. Not only does it explain some complicated theories of geology, McPhee does it with a prose so vibrant, fresh, and elastic, that it is always a joy to read. I thoroughly recommend this book to the curious-minded, or anyone who's ever looked at a mountain and said WOW.


Absolutely, bar none, the finest work of American natural science that I've ever read. McPhee has the eye of a scientist and the soul of a poet, and it makes for truly astonishing writing. I don't like to pile on the superlatives, but this is probably one of my ten favorite books of all time.


This was a great book about geology. It is the perfect blend of science and narrative. McPhee is a wonderful writer who tackles an enormous subject, basically the geologic history of America. He follows I-80 across the country with different geologists and looks at road cuts to get a view of the geology of the area. Each section of the country gets its own treatment, and this long book is actually five works combined, each of which can be read separately. Throughout the work McPhee gives the reader enough science to give a good grasp of this amazingly huge science, and all the names of rocks and geologic eras can get confusing after awhile. He does a great job explaining many facets of geology, its history as a science, many of the people responsible for its advancement, the almost incomprehensible time scale the geologists deal with (all 10,000 years of human history doesn't even show up on the scale), cutting edge theories, and how the science is constantly evolving and all we really have is theories because large scale geology cannot really be witnessed. While the hard science is very interesting and sometimes confusing, it is brilliantly offset by the geologists that travel with McPhee. He takes a different geologist along in each of the different sections of the book, and these characters give the work a human touch. They are all field geologists, think Wrangler jeans, work boots, a rock hammer, and lots of time outside. They all have interesting backstories for their involvement in the science. And they all have different specialties in the field, allowing McPhee access to many different aspects of geology. This was a wonderful book by a great writer. It is a great blend of science and narrative, and my favorite science-based nonfiction work i have ever read. If you have any interest in geology I would highly recommend this book.

Sondra Wolferman

The book starts off as a very interesting discussion of how our planet's geological history is revealed in the road cuts along Interstate 80, the transcontinental highway that runs approximately 3000 miles from northern New Jersey, clear across the country to San Francisco.About midway through the book the focus begins to shift, away from the rocks themselves and onto the men and women who study them. It soon becomes apparent that most geologists view their profession as a scouting mission in search of 'resources' hidden within the earth's rocks in order to exploit those resources for human consumption and for the enrichment of oil and mining interests.A part of his job, says Wyoming geologist David Love, is to find anything from oil to agates, and then, in effect say "Fly at it, folks!" to the people of the United States. Hence we have mountaintops blasted away, ancient forests felled, lakes, rivers, and streams poisoned, and wildlife driven to extinction in order to get to the next promising fossil fuel deposit or vein of ore. David Love, whose claim to fame as a geologist is that he 'discovered' a vast reserve of uranium ore in his home state of Wyoming, leads the author through a landscape covering hundreds of square miles blighted with uranium pits, each half a mile wide and five hundred feet deep which, by Love's own admission is 'an unearthly mess', worse than a war zone. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The road trip continues west through the Sierra Mountains and into California where we encounter another 'unearthly mess' left behind by hydraulic mining during the California gold rush. California geologist Eldridge Moores shrugs it off in typical fashion, saying something to the effect that, "if you're going to have an industrial society, then you have to have places that look like this..." Que sera, sera. Incidentally, both Moores and Love proudly proclaim they are 'members of the Sierra Club', as if shelling out a few bucks every year to an environmental group can somehow nullify the damage their profession has done, and continues to do, across the planet. The author's occasional snide references to 'environmentalists' and 'conservationists' indicate he shares the scientists' callous attitude toward the natural world. (I use the term 'scientist' loosely since most geological theories are based on educated guesses rather than proven facts.) The amount of information in this voluminous tome is overwhelming. There is no question this is a well-written and entertaining book to read. However, since it glorifies a 'science' that exists mainly for the purpose of enriching a small segment of the human population at the expense of the entire planet and the natural world, I give it two stars.


This was my first foray into John McPhee's work. And a weighty foray it was : This hefty tome consists of four previously-published McPhee books assembled into one spine, augmented with a fifth chapter.McPhee's often staccato prose takes the reader on a tour of the geology of the lower 48, as seen largely in the roadcuts of Interstate 80, separated into five major segments : the Appalachians, the Midwest, Wyoming, Nevada, and California. Although I found myself lacking an understanding of various exotic rock names as I read (serpentine ? gabbro ?), McPhee successfully weaves into his description of the physical world a fantastic, much larger, and more profound story that's compelling and universal. McPhee uses the rock in North America to motivate explorations of plate tectonics, the history of geology, and even to some extent the development of modern science in general. This book is ultimately an exploration of how the world we walk on came to be the way we see it today, and as such it hints at what might come to pass long into the future. The writing is focused almost exclusively on the rock and the processes that surround the rock, so the reader should at least have a passing interest in geology. But McPhee's clarity and enthusiasm show through in nearly every facet of the work, and I think that's what makes it a good read.

Charles Greer

A compendium of incredibly readable and illuminating books about the Earth's geology and geologists, with focus on plate tectonics. There's nothing like this book anywhere. It puts the scale of the universe into your mind so that you can comprehend the sliver of time and space available to the individual human, and start to picture the vastness of time and space in general. You'll start seeing the pictures in rocks, the histories in roadcuts.


A tour de force. Ostensibly a popular study of the geology of the United States along I-80, it's really the author's goal to teach all of us why geologists fall in love with geology. I'd always thought geology was "just rocks" until I read this. But McPhee takes you into the lives of his geologist guides, teaches you about the big breakthroughs in the science, and takes you through some geological events, some slow (like orogeny, one of my new favorite words) and some fast (the Loma Prieta earthquake). You learn a lot, but there are poetical passages in which he just lets the luscious, metaphorical terminology of the science wash over you; don't try to understand every paragraph word-for-word.This is broken into five sections, four of which were previously published separately. One can read a section on its own, take a break, and then come back to this huge tome.


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.

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?

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