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.

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.


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).


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.

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.

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!


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


McPhee Travels Interstate 80 from the east to the west coast accompanied by a succession of experts in the geology of the regions along the way. He writes in a chatty and engaging style for a book about geology. It reads like a travelogue of an intelligent fellow and good writer curious to find out what he can about the landmass of the United States without too much technicality.The author leavens the science with just the right amount of associated information: backgrounds and anecdotes about the various geologists (all are interesting), histories of geological discoveries, and human history as related to local geological features.Jargon is avoided. The author names dozens of minerals (out of about 4,000 yet discovered on earth) he comes across but details only the few most important. He takes you on many side trips off the interstate and to other places in the world where the formations and processes there shed light on what we find here. The book seems organized as well as possible for portraying such a messy science: the earth's crust has been churned for four billion years, and in different ways, times and depths for each region. What amazes is that so much has been discovered and understood.This is not a book for anyone without some interest in geology. Conversely, I believe most geologists would read it with interest and learn something.The few simple maps and diagrams are useful, and more would have been welcome. Scales of mileage would have been helpful.It took a while to read this, yet I was sorry that it had to end.


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?

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.

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