Annals of the Former World

ISBN: 0374518734
ISBN 13: 9780374518738
By: John McPhee

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Reader's Thoughts

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.

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.


I've only read parts of this book, since there are many different books included in this version of his geologic exploration of a cross-section of the US. I have a few things to say. #1. Read Rising from the Plains as you're driving in the Tetons. #2. Read any other section as you're driving in the area described. Your road trip will become something entirely different if you can see what you're reading about. #3. Read these books when you're planning a trip to any of the areas discussed. #4. Just read them. John McPhee does connect things better than most writers of text about geology. He makes it accessible while also staying interesting for those "in the know." And the people who are part of the geologic history of a place, like the mappers and surveyers are not mere footnotes in his writing. Oh no, they are the main characters, out for adventure and getting a lot of it along the way.

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.


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.


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.


This is an amazing book about geology, geologists, plate tectonics, America, and time. It is comprised of four books previously published: Basin and Range (which I reviewed before and still stand by the review), In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California. A final essay about the "basement" of North America is attached as a coda to finish the book. While reading the book, the sense of geologic time overwhelmed me and I couldn't help thinking how arbitrary and pathetic human endeavors are in light of the fact that humans participate in such a minute section of the earth's history. This sentiment courses its way throughout the book, at times subtly and at other times rather eloquently such as the following from In Suspect Terrain: "If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away. Yucatans and Floridas would be under the sun one moment and underwater the next, oceans would swing open like doors, mountains would grow like clouds and come down like melting sherbet, continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks down an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden full of fireflies. At the end of the program, man shows up - his ticket in his hand. Almost at once, he conceives of private property, dimension stone, and life insurance. When a Mt. St. Helens assaults his sensibilities with an ash cloud eleven miles high, he writes a letter to the New York Times recommending that the mountain be bombed."If there is a saving grace for humans or any kind of redemption for humans, it is that there are humans such as the geologists in this book who can fathom the earth, its composition and history, and the role humans have played on it, while at the same time admitting errors in their thought and humbly accepting that better explanations might still be in the offing (geologically speaking).


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!


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 book was a gift from a good friend who gave it to me when I switched from biology to geology as a major in college. In "Annals of the Former World" McPhee takes us on a journey through time and space by examining the geology of North America (mostly) along I-80. It's been 11 years since I graduated, and longer since I read the book, but I remember the material I learned in my classes that last year of college really coming to life as I read the McPhee's evocative language. McPhee's essays are, as far as I could tell, technically accurate and way more interesting than any geology text I have ever read, so if you're interested in geology and want to learn it in a fun way, I'd highly recommend this book. In fact, I'll probably drag it along with me next time I take a long country drive just to reacquaint myself with the amazing geology you can see just watching out the window.

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.


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 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.

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.

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