Annals of the Former World

by John McPhee

Hardcover, 1998




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.


"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."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jpsnow
Wonderful narrative elucidating the geological history of the United States, told in 5 parts by writer Jon McPhee, who made a career of traveling I-80 with several geologists. What I like most is the way he shows concrete, relevant examples that prove the effects are still happening. For example,
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p. 235, where he describes how the Pennsylvania Turnpike can be broken up within 20 years. Another early part talks about boulders being swept into a small town in Nevada. This book is really a collection of five separate works. "Rising from the Plains," was my favorite. it's the geology of the Rockies, and the story of David Love, who followed in his mother and father's footsteps to understand the subject matter as much as a pioneer and steward as he was a scientist.
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LibraryThing member abirdman
John McPhee can write about nearly anything and make it fascinating and fun. This is a collection of several books (including the famous one about geology and plate tectonics), which were, in turn, collections of his essays from the New Yorker.

I finally got to read this over vacation, and it's
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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.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
Forget your textbooks, this is the best intro to geology you will find. Readable, informative, enlightening... I love how he attacks geology, not as a lesson, but through geologists. This is wonderful because geology is such a frustrating science, where newer ideas constantly make the ideas of
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older great geologists irrelevant. Even in this book, one geologist is uncomfortable with plate tectonics (well, I mean they don't think it's totally correct as currently laid out) partially based on the ideas they carried over from before plate tectonics was generally accepted. Anyway, the point is, geology as just given facts can be quite dull (unless you are actually looking at the rocks!). Geology as a composition of keen observations in a battle to interpret the poor rock record is fascinating.
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LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
This review of this book won’t be long, not only because it took me a full two months to finish it, which would have required me to go back to review what I read waaay back then, but also because my mind is not well adapted to the minutiae of scientific discourse. I would have a very difficult
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time recounting what I read in any coherent way.

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!
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LibraryThing member frenchbun
If you're going to spend a few billion years with someone, you'll be glad you picked John McFee as your guide. He weaves a beautiful narrative story out of "deep time": a length of time so vast that human nature has difficulty comprehending how insignificantly brief our species has been resident on
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earth. He expertly weaves in stories of geologists working in our time and in the last few hundred years to help the reader understand the geologic history of the earth.
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LibraryThing member EricaKline
If you are interested in geology or how North America was created, you will find much to like in this book. Much, being the operative word - this is a huge book with lots of detail. It is actually the compilation of several smaller books.
LibraryThing member artnking
John McPhee labored for decades on this book. He loves the topic and he brings it alive with his superb writing. I'll never forget the Wyoming geologist, Mr. Love. The best book I've read in the last decade.
LibraryThing member bwdiederich
Seriously love this book, but I don't know if I'll EVER finish it.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
For starters, do not be intimidated by the subject matter: geology. McPhee writes with a folksy tone. Right away he is calling the reader "friend." This is not to say the content of "Crossing the Craton" has been dumbed down. It hasn't. McPhee doesn't spare the reader from words like brachiopods,
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samarain, neodymium and nautiloids and his timelines are a confusing mess. It takes some getting used to but I have to say this, reading about the oldest rock (35 billion years old) from the Minnesota River Valley is pretty fascinating. "Crossing the Craton" is the last chapter in his behemoth book, Annals of the Former World and probably the shortest.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
What a splendid way to learn some geology! I have driven I-80 across most of the USA so much of the landscape discussed here is quite familiar to me. But I sure learned a lot about the processes that brought that landscape into being!

It was a great help that all the geological ages - Devonian etc.
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- 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.
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LibraryThing member JohnPeterAltgeld
The book has too many tedious and opaque renditions of terminology, and the narrative is rambling and disjointed, but I give the book four stars because of McPhee's profound fascination with geology and geologists and their personalities, which he conveys well and affectionately; more illustrations
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would have been helpful.
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LibraryThing member sussura
Nonfiction. The geologic history of the United States as discovered by studying its roadcuts. This book is large and heavy enough to be a weapon. It changes how you look at everyday surroundings. How you pass through the world. And your understanding of place, time, and impact. That's just for
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LibraryThing member GlennBell
This book was evidently written for trained geologists, since many geological terms are used throughout the book without any explanations. The author does not stick to topic and wanders among experiences, history, and geology. The book has some interesting and useful information buried in a lengthy
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and largely unintelligible text. This book would appeal to a narrow set of people who are experts in geology.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
Have carted this tome through several moves across the country. Finally cracked it open, and it didn't disappoint.

A geological transect of the US, following I-80 roughly east to west. McPhee does a fantastic job imparting just home much time is involved, our conception of any map or the present is
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that it is just a moment that probably won't be recorded in the rocks.

Hopefully my I-80 days are behind me, would love a more in depth look up here in Cascadia.
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LibraryThing member ivanfranko
Like a long hard hike, but so well worth it. John Mc Phee does his very best to keep you engaged with a description of US geology adjacent to I-80. Your mind is stretched by the staggering time scale and the effort to imagine geologic processes in four dimensions. You need to plough on over some of
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the difficulties because they are not the 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.
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LibraryThing member mosaic42
I read Annals cover-to-cover about every three years. It keeps me usefully in mind of the age of the earth and of the dynamism of the continents across geologic time, reflected in every roadcut and every pebble on the playground.

I also love McPhee's approach of using profiles of individual
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geologists as his window onto the history of each section of the land.
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LibraryThing member willszal
Geology is one of those parts of my life I've always had curiosity about, but never took the time to explore. I'm both an animist and love backpacking off trail in wilderness areas. These two arenas have had me at least meditating on geology, if not formally studying the subject.

For awhile now I've
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been looking for a geological history of New England. Last year a friend recommend a book—the only Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on geology—this text.

It is long! It took me about a year to get through. It is a compilation of five parts, written across twenty years of research, and published together in 1998. The book is mostly about the continental United States. Here's the basic outline:

Book 1: Basin and Range—Nevada and Utah, with geologist Clarence King

Book 2: In Suspect Terrain—Appalachians, with geologist Anita Harris

Book 3: Rising from the Plains—Wyoming, with geologist David Love

Book 4: Assembling California—California, with geologist Eldridge Moores

Book 5: Crossing the Craton—Midwest (essay-length)

To help the narrative along, in each book McPhee accompanies an accomplished geologist, both telling their life story, and getting into detail about the landscapes the love.

One unfortunate artifact in the book is that McPhee began writing when plate tectonics was a relatively new and somewhat controversial theory (when nowadays it is taken for granted). This creates a few unnecessary diversions.

At times, the book becomes quite technical. I can't say that I understood everything that McPhee shared about geology. That said, the reading was still enjoyable the whole way through, and I'd rather have a book that is over my head and enjoyable than one that is dumbed down. If anything, it inspires me to dig in more deeply to geology!

If you're looking for a thorough introduction to the geology of the United States, you've found it!
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Pulitzer Prize (Winner — General Non-Fiction — 1999)



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