In 1978 New Yorker magazine staff writer John McPhee set out making notes for an ambitious project: a geological history of North America, centered, for the sake of convenience, on the 40th parallel, a history that encompasses billions of years. In 1981 he published the first of the four books that would come from his research: Basin and Range, a study of the mountainous lands between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas. Two years later came In Suspect Terrain, a grand overview of the Appalachian mountain system. In 1986 McPhee released Rising from the Plains, a history of the Rocky Mountains set largely in Wyoming. And in 1993 came Assembling California, a survey of the area geologists find to be a laboratory of volcanic and tectonic processes, a place where geology can be watched in the making. Annals of the Former World gathers these four volumes, which McPhee always conceived of as a whole, to make that epic of the Earth's formation; to it he adds a fifth book, Crossing the Craton, which introduces the continent's ancient core, underlying what is now Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.
McPhee's great virtue as a journalist covering the sciences--and any other of the countless subjects he has taken on, for that matter--is his ability to distill and explain complex matters: here, for example, the processes of mineral deposition or of plate tectonics. He does so by allowing geologists to speak for themselves and an entertaining lot they are, those sometimes odd men and women who puzzle out the landscape for clues to its most ancient past. Annals of the Former World is a magisterial work of popular science for which geologists--and devotees of good writing--will be grateful. --Gregory McNamee
The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion years
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 structure of the book never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under the overall title Annals of the Former World.
Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.
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