"Twenty years ago, when John McPhee began his journeys back and forth across the United States, he planned to describe a cross-section of North America at about the fortieth parallel and, in the process, come to an understanding not only of the science but of the style of the geologists he traveled with." "Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a many-layered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it, guided by twenty-five new maps and the "Narrative Table of Contents" (an essay outlining the history and structure of the project). Read sequentially, the book is an organic succession of set pieces, flashbacks, biographical sketches, and histories of the human and lithic kind; approached systematically, it can be a North American geology primer, an exploration of plate tectonics, or a study of geologic time and the development of the time scale."--BOOK JACKET.
I finally got to read this over vacation, and it's amazing in the author's ability to engage the reader enough to digest and learn a prodigious amount of geology. What appears to be solid scientific knowledge is interspersed with profiles of geologists, the processes of experimental and observational science-- almost 700 pages of damned good writing about a subject that could easily be horribly boring. Toward the end of the book is a moment-by-moment description of the effects of the recent Loma Prieta earthquake in central California that is spell-binding.
I also love McPhee's approach of using profiles of individual geologists as his window onto the history of each section of the land.
Having said that however, I really did enjoy this book. I love science in the only way a historian can, by exploring its effects on people, society and culture. It was with that mindset that I began reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.
This work is essentially a geological travelogue, an amalgam of five books that describes the history of the formation of the earth. But rather than trying to present it in a dry, linear way that most assuredly would have induced me to put it down within the first dozen pages or so, McPhee chose to structure the book in a unique and effective way; using trips he took across America along Interstate 80 – the only highway that traverses the entire country – as the anchor point to which the narrative always returns. Accompanied by noted geologists along the way, he uses their observations to illuminate how the earth was initially formed and how it evolved.
Much of the book is steeped in geological jargon – rock types, formations, faults, tectonics etc. I learned very quickly that I was not going to be able to stop and look up every one of these terms if I ever wanted to finish the book. So, rather than attempt that I simply let them flow by me as I tried to grasp the overall story that was being told. And you know what? It kind of worked. Occasionally I found myself getting lost, but McPhee is such an excellent writer that he always pulled me back just in time. So while I could not begin to explain to you much of what I read, in my minds eye I understand what he was trying to get across.
My favorite parts of the book however, were those sections that deviated from the science of geology and moved into how the geology he was describing affected people,society and culture. In academic terms geology is as much a humanity as it is a science. It is so complex, and has so many interlocking parts that interpretation of data is often as much intuition as it is analysis. Geology is also more than just the science of rocks; it also has very important implications for how life formed and evolved on Earth, and how societies rose, fell, and rose again. Particularly effective are his narratives describing some of this. His recounting of the gold rush in the mid 19th century, and how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California made its effects felt stand out here. Lastly he includes some old fashioned biography, including sketches of some of the early pioneers in the field of geology and a very moving one of one of his travel partners – Dr. David Love of Wyoming.
I cannot say this book was easy to read; long stretches were almost incomprehensible to me. It required me to internalize and come to grips with descriptions of vast periods of time. But McPhee is such an outstanding writer that he always brought me back into the narrative in such a way that by the end of every set piece I had a grasp of what he was trying to convey. And at the end I felt I had acquired a real appreciation for the stunning complexity of the history of earth’s formation and evolution; and more importantly how that history is intimately entwined, with the creation and evolution of the life forms living on it. It really is two parts of the same story.
If you have the time and have any interest in science, or feel like getting out of your comfort zone for a while, I highly recommend this book!
The human element is provided by the geologists who accompany McPhee. These people are as fascinating as the subject they love. Their devotion to geology is illustrated in a tribute to Dr. David Love, from pioneer stock in Wyoming, who became a legend in his science.
The Fourth Book, "Assembling California" resonates here in New Zealand with our gold rush of the 1860's and the presence of the Alpine Fault. The accounts from the Loma Prieta Earthquake (1989) make sobering reading.
You feel as if you've achieved something worthwhile when you come to the end.
It was a great help that all the geological ages - Devonian etc. - are mapped out on the end papers. But I gave up looking for them and just let the detailed chronologies wash over me. I may not become a geologist in this life! There is an awful lot of information in this book. Could it have been better with fewer details and more structure? In a way though part of the book is about what geologists don't know. Sometimes the data fit the theory quite nicely. Sometimes there is a fair amount of interpretation and story-telling required to see how the theory can plausibly explain the data. Sometimes it's quite a stretch. And sometimes the data is just thumbing its nose at the poor scientist. The deluge of information that McPhee presents helps show the problem of the scientist trying to make sense of all that.