The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap. - Novalis

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Annals of the Former World

I have been a fan of John McPhee since I read The Curve of Binding Energy many years ago. If you haven't read anything by him, then you should, and anything will do - just choose from the long list of his works according to your favorite subject - he has written about almost everything it seems. But his Pulitzer Prize winner Annals of the Former World is so good that for me it stands apart from the many other books of his I've read.

A little knowledge of geology should be part of everybody's general education. Some basic familiarity with any of the natural sciences opens your eyes and let's you see things that you simply would not be able to notice otherwise. The world is a complex and marvelous place and most people see only a tiny fraction of it. To learn even a little of what the world looks like to a botanist, a microbiologist, a physicist, an entomologist - this opens up your imagination and your senses in ways that most people can't envision. There is such joy to be had in seeing the landscape like a geologist - it opens up the underground, the mountains and rivers... it changes the way you see and feel and the way that you think. And McPhee's book is simply the best non-technical introduction to the phenomenology of geology that I know. It's an immense book in many senses, but reads like a novel. It is so well written it almost makes you weep. If you know no geology to begin with, this can be a mind-altering and exciting book. I can't praise it highly enough. Here is some of the publisher's description:

"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. The structural arrangement of the work never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under the overall title Annals of the Former World.

In Basin and Range, McPhee traverses the Basin and Range province, from Utah to eastern California, accompanied by Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a professor of geology who has done extensive field work in Nevada. In Suspect Terrain follows McPhee from the outwash plains of Brooklyn to Indiana's drifted diamonds and gold, in the company of the United States Geological Survey's Anita Harris, a Brooklyn native. In Rising from the Plains, he rides across Wyoming with David Love, a field geologist with a family history on the frontier and an unsurpassed understanding of Western geology. Assembling California takes McPhee across the Sierra Nevada and the Great Central Valley to the wine country of the Coast Ranges, the rock of San Francisco, and the San Andreas family of faults, with tectonicist Eldridge Moores as guide. In Crossing the Craton, a new and final essay and the last link in the cross-country chain, he and Randy Van Schmus, a geochronologist, explore the midcontinent's Precambrian basement.

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. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology, and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction writing."

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