Annals of the Former World

John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

712 Pages



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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

For much of twenty years, John McPhee traveled back and forth across the United States in the company of geologists. His aim was to write a complex work describing a cross-section of North America at about the fortieth parallel and, in so doing, to give an account of the "deep history" of the continent—4.6 billion years—as well as of the science of geology and the styles of the geologists he traveled with. The breadth of the work led him to complete it in stages, each of which was acclaimed upon publication (Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, Assembling California, and Crossing the Craton); and when it was published in full, as Annals of the Former World, it was recognized as a masterpiece of nonfiction writing: an organic succession of set pieces, flashbacks, biographical sketches, and histories of the human and lithic kind.

Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a many-layered tale, and the reader may take paths through it. Profoundly informed, clearly and succinctly written, it is our finest popular survey of geology, and a summation of John McPhee's work.


Praise for Annals of the Former World

"A magnum opus, a hallmark in literary scientific journalism."—Blake Edgar, San Francisco Chronicle

"McPhee makes it all work. He somehow makes his nearly 700 pages of geological discourse sound like the archetypal drama of the planet. (As, indeed, it may be.)"—Rob Laymon, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"No other work explains so well . . . the living principles of geology . . . McPhee has turned the world on to rocks."—Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times

"Sunlit, brilliant . . . this book of wonders . . . ranks with the Journals of Lewis and Clark."—John Skow, Time

"[McPhee] triumphs by succinct prose, by his . . . ability to capture the essence of a complex issue . . . in a well-turned phrase."—Stephen Jay Gould, The New York Review of Books

"Tripling as a geology primer, an autobiography and a panorama of the nation, bejeweled with splendid vignettes and set-pieces, Annals of the Former World offers a view of America like no other. It is the outpouring of a master stylist. Yield to its geopoetry and have your eyes opened to a barely known aspect of the continent."—Roy Porter, Los Angeles Times

"John McPhee has produced, over nearly a quarter of a century, a deep philology of the continent. Annals of the Former World is surely a classic. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was timeless."—A.O. Scott, The Village Voice

"'It's a real schlemazel,' geologist Anita Harris said to McPhee as they examined geologic formations at a road cut along Interstate 80 near the Delaware Water Gap. Not by accident is geology called geology. It's named for Gaea, the daughter of Chaos.' The rocks are often chaotic, but the study of them is not in McPhee's pellucid presentation. His meaty book, adorned with 25 stunning landform maps, is the result of a 20-year project in which he set himself the goal of portraying geology and its practitioners in a way that would 'arrest the
fs20attention of other people while achieving acceptability in the geologic community.' He started with the intention of setting forth 'a sort of cross section of North America at about the fortieth parallel' but wound up casting a much wider net. A measure of the scope of his tale is provided by the structure of Book 2: In Suspect Terrain, which begins with a profile of Harris, examines the Delaware Water Gap as a fragment of the Appalachians, discusses the Appalachians and plate tectonics and presents the theory of continental glaciation. Book 2 and the four others fill out an absorbing picture of the former world—the North America of past geologic eras back to the beginning of the Mesozoic some 245 million years ago."—Scientific American

"McPhee began studying the geology of the U.S. twenty years ago, cruising Interstate 80 in the company of geologists and listening intently to their decodings of the rock strata visible in road cuts. What look merely like colorful outcroppings to the uninitiated are actually records of deep time and the stupendous heavings, splittings, and crushings of the earth's crust. A strictly literary guy, McPhee was first drawn to geology by the poetics of its nomenclature and his love of land, but he found himself captivated as well by the personalities of the scientists he befriended and soon realized that what he had conceived of as a good idea for a single piece of writing was in fact the subject of a lifetime. He filled four books with accounts of his geological journeys across North America, books now legendary for rendering a technical discipline alluring enough for even the most science-phobic of readers and for elevating creative nonfiction to the level of art . . . Here he brings those four books, revised and updated, together with one more, previously unpublished geological work, Crossing the Craton, a study of the low-profile country of the heartland. The five volumes together form a portrait of the continent—a magnificent narrative that not only tracks the drama of North American geological history but also chronicles the rapid evolution of the theories and practice of geology itself and tells the intriguing stories of people for whom love of rocks has meant love of life."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"McPhee winds up his artful geohistory of the US by going deep into the heartland—Kansas, Nebraska—in pursuit of deep time: the Precambrian. Included in this collection are his four previous forays into geology—Basin and Range (1981, which, to encapsulate, delineated plate tectonics), In Suspect Terrain (1983, Appalachian geohistory and some broadsides at plate tectonic theory), Rising from the Plains (1986, Wyoming curiosities and environmental conundrums), and n0 Assembling California (1993, a showcase for active tectonics). Here he adds Crossing the Craton—craton being the rock basement of the continent—delving into the realms of 'isotopic and chemical signatures, cosmological data, and conjecture,' in the company of geochronologist Randy Van Schmus. McPhee has a way of making deep structures seem freestanding, right there to ogle: 'the walls of the rift are three thousand feet sheer,' they're also 600 feet below the surface. Dexterous as ever, McPhee takes on the creation—early island arcs and vulcanism and microcontinents—and tells it with all the power and simplicity a genesis story deserves."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Annals of the Former World
Book 1Basin and Range 
The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude--a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea. Nevertheless, these coordinates will, for what is generally described
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  • John McPhee

  • John McPhee is the author of more than 25 books, including Annals of the Former World, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction in 1999. He has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965 and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were both nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.
  • John McPhee Peter Cook