John McPhee's 'Annals' - geological wonders


"Annals of the Former World," by John A. McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 624 pages, with 25 maps. $40. Annals of the Former World" is a seven hundred page block of a book about geology-specifically, the geology of the United States as seen from Interstate 80 on its transcontinental run from New York to San Francisco. Not only is this book about old stuff; it is old stuff.

Except for a 40-page chapter called "Crossing the Craton," this volume consists of four books ("Basin and Range," "In Suspect Terrain," "Rising From the Plains," and "Assembling California") originally published between 1981 and 1993. Esoteric and out of lTC date, the only reason to read this book is that it is written by John McPhee.

McPhee didn't invent the modern style of literary non-fiction. That came, as has the greater part of McPhee's work, out of The New Yorker during its pre-Tina Brown era, following the model of a staff writer named Joseph Mitchell. But McPhee, in more than a score of readable, quotable, books published over the last thirty years, has made the style his own.

First and foremost, the style is literate. It presumes the reader is acquainted with a wide range of literature, is comfortable with long sentences and longer paragraphs, and is thoroughly familiar with the contents of the dictionary. It mixes exposition with dialog, rarely aligns itself with either side of a controversy, and never uses footnotes. It doesn't just assume you will trust the author - it demands it. Anything inside quotation marks comes from a specific source, the style asserts, and anything outside a quote is a fact.

The style is conversational rather than journalistic. It values storytelling more than reporting; entertainment over education. It aims to enlighten readers, not instruct them. "Relax," the genre seems to say. "I know this sounds quirky, murky, and arcane, but trust me - it's interesting. You're going to like it."

Although I had read much of this book in its previous incarnations, I enjoyed reading it again. I enjoyed the arcane facts, such as the gem about how John Wilkes Booth, the actor who gained fame at Ford's Theater, had once run an oil drilling business in Pennsylvania named the Dramatic Oil Company.

I enjoyed the sly word-play ("Catskill sandstone, red as borscht") and the simple, perfect, descriptions, comparing geological strata to the evening news - "more often a montage of disasters than a cumulative record of time"- or a lake to "an aneurysm in a river."

Professors of geology can sniff at McPhee's fascination with bonanzas and disasters. Stylists can carp that the seven or 10 or 12-item lists of names or nouns that appear every couple of dozen pages, regular as tree rings, offer fossilized evidence that these pieces were written by an author paid by the word. Cynics can marvel at how the people McPhee travels with and the places he visits are always so colorful and interesting.

Combining four books of literary non-fiction into one big volume makes the genre's formulas easy to see. But all genres have formulas. McPhee's writing stands out because of his marvelous skill at working with, and within, those formulaic constraints. Everything he writes is worth reading. In this case, it's worth reading again.

John R. Alden, an archaeologist, has almost 30 years of practical experience working with geological surfaces, strata, depositional sequences and erosion events. In an earlier era, he was trained as a chemical engineer.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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