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

David P

Most readers have a favorite author, and mine is probably John McPhee. A writer of non-fiction, he takes delight in exploring unconventional aspects of our society, presented through colorful individuals and described in crisp and scintillating language. This book is a sampler, containing excerpts from a dozen books, an admirable introduction for anyone new to McPhee's style. Collections like this are often disjointed and fragmentary, but not here: each section stands on its own, each is a minor masterpiece, each tells a story, and the editor's introductory analysis of McPhee's style is masterful in its own way. First published in 1976, it is still in print, like other books by McPhee. He wrote many more after that--about Alaska, about the geology of the western US (three books, a bit heavy with geology jargon), about an ocean trip with the US merchant marine, also stories about bears in New Jersey, about attempts to contain the mighty Mississippi and lava flows on Iceland, and so forth, up to his recent "Ransom of Russian Art," his twenty-third. As the above list shows, McPhee's interests are rather wide-ranging. The books excerpted here touch on canoeing in Maine, on travels through the sparsely populated (yes!) center of New Jersey, and on dreamers or visionaries (pick your choice) who plan trips to the stars by controlled atomic explosions, and others who fly a craft that is a hybrid between an airplane and an airship. All these sparkle with apt metaphors ("Generally speaking, if I had a choice between hiking and peeling potatoes, I would peel the potatoes"). And the descriptions are intimate and personal: all are based on first-hand experiences by McPhee, as he follows his subjects wherever they take him. I ought to admit here that his point of view is somewhat masculine, but there is more than enough in his writings to attract any reader. He also has the gift of digging up unusual stories--e.g. in "Oranges" he tells practically all you might want about Florida's sunshine product. You not only learn the ins and outs of "Indian River oranges" (it's a lagoon, not a river), but also how Ossian B. Hart, later governor of the state, played his violin to an audience of alligators. And he uncovers interesting characters, sometimes precociously so. McPhee's first book was an admiring portrayal of a talented basketball player he got to know during college years: Bill Bradley later became US senator from New Jersey and a serious contender for the US presidential nomination. Four years later he wrote an equally admiring book about a nearly unknown young Black tennis player from Richmond, Virginia, Arthur Ashe. And in "Travels in Georgia", a wilderness adventure, he describes his meeting with "Governor Jimmy Carter". All these are included here, as is an encounter between David Brouwer, head of the Sierra Club, and an opponent of Brouwer, a prominent pro-development westerner. Both were invited by McPhee to share a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. And much, much more. In each generation, only a handful of books endure and become part of the literary heritage handed down from generation to generation. It is too early to tell, but McPhee's writings may well end up in this class. A century hence, if anyone would like to understand the peculiar creativity that made twentieth century America the great country it is, he might well find the clearest answer in McPhee's true-to-life explorations.

Michael Powell

Great forewords to each selection as well as a fascinating General foreword that discusses McPhee's "method"


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.

Nicole Hardina

For me the writer, McPhee is amazing. For me the reader, McPhee is pretty damn close to consistently amazing.


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.


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.

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.


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




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?

Alex Benenson



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.

John Chadwick

One of the he Masters of narrative nonfiction!


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

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