The John McPhee Reader

ISBN: 0374517193
ISBN 13: 9780374517199
By: John McPhee William Howarth William L. Howarth

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About this book

The John McPhee Reader, first published in 1976, is comprised of selections from the author’s first twelve books. In 1965, John McPhee published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are; a decade later, he had published eleven others. His fertility, his precision and grace as a stylist, his wit and uncanny brilliance in choosing subject matter, his crack storytelling skills have made him into one of our best writers: a journalist whom L.E. Sissman ranked with Liebling and Mencken, who Geoffrey Wolff said “is bringing his work to levels that have no measurable limit,” who has been called “a master craftsman” so many times that it is pointless to number them.

Reader's Thoughts


Another wonderful John McPhee book that elucidates the geology and illuminates some human experience on that terrain. McPhee didn't mention the ecological disaster that is Farson WY, but he did hit many other problems and situations. One of McPhee's strengths is his ability to lucidly describe and summarize complex scientific theories. He makes you think you, even you, might be able to understand a little geology. A great book in his series which should be read by anyone who will travel the I80 corridor or been to Lander, Rawlings, etc.


This was Anna's pick for our book exchange. I did not get to read every piece but the ones I did read I liked very much. He has a way of making the mundane seem terribly interesting. My favorites were "The Barrens" and the one about the art museum director, Sorry I can't recall the name of that one at the moment., but it was a fascinating look at a person who is really excellent at his job. I guess that is th genius of McPhee.




If you like John McPhee, or you've been told you should, this is a nice sample of his work. Since his books are so deeply about something, you'll get a sense of which topics might interest you by browsing/reading this book. For instance, I'm not so interested in baseball. So, I won't read A Sense of Where You Are.

Alex Benenson



Geology and geography for the normal person!

Jim Wilson

The best essayist of the past twenty years. This is an excellent sampler of his work that should lead you to bigger and better things.


I've been meaning to read McPhee for awhile. Perhaps I should've waited to find a full book by him. It is nice to read a clip of a work by him, and to finish it. It's a bit like reading a magazine. I never would have read about Bill Bradley and the Deerfield headmaster otherwise. Which is good?

John Chadwick

One of the he Masters of narrative nonfiction!

Dr. George H. Elder

This book contains 12 articles, or chapters, that were written by McPhee from 1965 to 1975. The strongest single element in these works is McPhee’s use of detail. In The Pine Barrens McPhee tells the story about New Jersey’s great forest, the Pine Barrens, and its back-woods inhabitants, the “pineys.” The piece is richly appointed with details about the history of the Pine Barrens, the people who live there, and the forest itself. Consider the following description of a piney named Bill Wasovwich:“In a straight-backed chair near the doorway to the kitchen sat a young man with long black hair, who wore a visored red leather cap that was darkened with age. His shirt was course-woven and had eyelets down a V neck that was laced with a thong. His trousers were made of canvas, and he was wearing gum boots.” McPhee lets us actually see this character by painting him in such vivid details. He gives us colors, hues, and textures that make his words spring to life, and leaves firm images in a readers mind. McPhee extends the use of details to the historical narratives he utilizes in his works. Here is an example from The Pine Barrens. “The wizard” of the pines was Jerry Munyhon. He could make a cat’s paw come through a key hole. He could cause axes to chop wood by themselves. He could cause money to multiply. He was bulletproof. And he once caught a bullet that was fired at him and handed it back to the man who had done the shooting.” Page 77, paragraph 2. McPhee had to talk to many piney to get all these wonderful details about the Munyhon, and he gives us a marvelous look into the folklore of the pineys as a result. But McPhee is also keen on using details to describe things as well as people and history. In A Roomful of Hovings McPhee profiles the life and times of the New York Metropolitan Museum’s director, Thomas Hoving. He describes an important ivory artifact that Hoving procured for the museum called the Cross of Bury St. Edmunds in the following passage.“Carved in walrus ivory, the two foot cross had sixty-three cryptically abbreviated inscriptions in Greek and Latin and a hundred and eight carved figures, which were sharply detailed and extraordinarily alive in their gestures and expressions….” Page 110, paragraph 1. This began a long and detailed description of the artifact and its history that went on for four pages. I was enthralled by both the descriptive and historical details that McPhee used, and am convinced that he becomes an expert on anything he writes about.


I read this a good twenty years ago and found it to be very interesting and varied. It started me on reading his books.


When I want to introduce someone to the writing of John McPhee this is my go-to volume.


John McPhee has been recommended to me as I enjoy creative nonfiction, so maybe his reader would be a good place to start.


You know how every New Yorker article you've ever read takes some seemingly mundane item or place and then writes the hell out of it? It starts out interesting but by page 12, you remember you're not actually interested in whatever the topic is.Well it turns out that every single one of them is just copying John McPhee, who is so much better at the genre than anyone else. It's unreal. These were just excerpts and I now want to read half the books they're from. He has a perfect eye for scenery and ear for dialogue, so each vignette captures exactly what he wants it to in a couple of paragraphs. Wow.


This is the book I read and re-read to try and figure out how McPhee does it. Might as well read the Bible to figure out how you part the Red Sea or walk on water.

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