Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

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Topic classification : General Science - Geology of North America -
Earth Science - Geography - Theory of Plate Tectonics

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First Paperback Edition, June 2000
701 pages
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 0-374-51873-4

First Hardcover Edition, June 1998
701 pages
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 0-374-10520-0

Audio Cassette [Abridged]
Published by Audio Scholar
January 2000
ISBN 1-879-55757-6

            Annals of the Former World combines five books by John McPhee, the first four of which were published previously, into one volume.

  1. Basic and Range [1981]
  2. In Suspect Terrain [1983]
  3. Rising From the Plains [1986]
  4. Assembling California [1993]
  5. Crossing the Craton [1998]

  See the cover image (gif 317x475)  

25 Maps
30-page 2-column index

            McPhee, a resident of Princeton, New Jersey, has been a writer for New Yorker magazine since 1978. Since 1975 he has been Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

            "Why would someone out of one culture try to make prose out of the other? Why would someone who majored in English choose to write about rocks? Why would a person who works for something called a Humanities Council and teaches a university course called Humanistic Studies 440 undertake to write about geology?" [page 7] "There seemed, indeed, to be more than a little of the humanities in the subject." [31]

            The result is the glimmer of the personalities of the author's traveling companions, the charm of the towns where they procured hotel rooms, and dialogues of speculation about the origins of the world. This is what's superimposed on the substratum (pun intended) of the original book idea to travel across North America and "write about rocks."

Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction

The Pulitzer Prizes are awarded each year by Columbia University. The stated purpose of a Pulitzer, which comes with a check for $5000, is to "honor achievement in literature, the arts and journalism." Provisions for the prizes were established in the will of Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The winner in the general nonfiction category must be "a distinguished book of non-fiction by an American author that is not eligible for consideration in any other category."

There were three nominees for the nonfiction category in 1998. They were Annals of the Former World by John McPhee , The Nurture Assumption : Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris , and Crime and Punishment in America by Elliott Currie.

The Pulitzer Prize Board voted to give the award to Annals of the Former World .

John McPhee is a '53 alumnus of Princeton University. Another Princeton alumnus also won a Pulitzer recently. In 1999, A. Scott Berg, class of '71, won in the biography category, for his book Lindbergh .

In 2000, the Pulitzer for general nonfiction went to Embracing Defeat : Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower.

According to the April 19, 1999 issue of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, when McPhee was informed that he had won the prize, "... he said calmly, 'It's pretty nice.'"

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            Annals of the Former World is the culmination of a 20 year work in progress. It's based primarily on numorous trips, with five companions, along Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco, " ... a cross section of North America at about the fortieth parallel." [5] The first of these trips was in 1978. However the conceptual journey of the book is "not linear", explains McPhee. "It begins in New Jersey and leaps to Nevada, because the tectonics in New Jersey two hundred million years ago are being recapitulated by the tectonics of Nevada today." [6] Indeed, Book 4, Assembling California begins and ends in California, but in between it reaches around the world to Greece.

            One of McPhee's companions is David Love, who works for the United States Geological Survey. Love's pet peeve is "black-box geologists" who lack field experience, and sit in offices and run computer simulations, because it's easy to do, and easy to get bureaucracies to fund it. [381-382] "The name of the game now is 'modelling'", he complains. "A lot of it I can't see for sour owl shit." [382]


"With her permission, I will call her Anita, and let the rest of the baggage go. Straightforwardly, as a student, she went into geology because geology was a means of escaping the ghetto. 'I knew that if I went into geology I would never have to live in New York City,' she once said to me. 'It was a way to get out.' She was nineteen years old when she was graduated from Brooklyn College. She remembers how pleased and astounded she was to learn that she could be paid 'for walking around in mountains.' Paid now by the United States Geological Survey, she has walked uncounted mountains."

John McPhee, in Annals of the Former World , From Book 2 : In Suspect Terrain, p. 149

            Another one of McPhee's colorful companions is Anita Harris, who, like Love, works for the USGS. She is cautiously critical of the theory of plate tectonics. The theory was relatively new and controversial in the 1960s, but now, although it still leaves numerous questions unanswered, it is taught as standard gospel in college and high school geology courses. Harris says, "I get all heated up when some sweet young thing with three geology courses tells me about global tectonics, never having gone on a field trip to look at a rock." [148]

            This model of the earth says that the crust of the planet is made of several solid plates floating on a semi-fluid mantle. The fluid underneath has convention, like the swirls in a pot of boiling water. This causes the plates to move relative to one another -- extremely slowly, in our own perception of time. Where the plates move apart, at the mid-Atlantic ridge, new ocean crust is formed by dense lava. Continents are higher than ocean crust because, being less dense, they float higher. The deformation where plates crash together -- so slowing that we don't see any motion at all in our lifetimes -- is the cause of mountains rising. (Such mountain-forming episodes are called orogenies.) Earthquakes and volcanoes appear where plates slide past one another, causing shear stress, or an edge of one plate is "subducted" beneath an edge of the other plate, producing a deep trench.


"Ebbets Field, where they buried the old Brooklyn Dodgers, was also on the terminal moraine. When a long-ball hitter hit a long ball, it would land on Bedford Avenue and bounce down the morainal front to roll toward Coney Island on the outwash plain. No one in Los Angeles would ever hit a homer like that."

John McPhee, in Annals of the Former World , From Book 2 : In Suspect Terrain, p. 161

            Besides tectonics, the major shapers of the earth have been glaciation and erosion. Unlike the catastrophist view of Genesis, which had proposed world formation by means of few abrupt events, the newer uniformitarian view of creation says everyday processes like erosion brought the earth to its present state, imperceptibly slowly over unimaginably vast durations of time. Although it sound unbelievable, the Grand Canyon, a mile deep, ten miles wide, and 250 miles long, was produced by water erosion in the Colorado River. The present is the key to the past, as uniformitarians like to say.

            The vast time scales of the earth, since the planet solidified over four billion years ago, are divided into eras, eras are divided into periods, and periods are divided into epochs [tables of the geologic time scales, pages 667-701]. As other science popularizers have done before him, most notably Jacob Bronowski and Carl Sagan, McPhee invokes the analogy of the entire history of the earth visualized as one year -- "The Precambrian runs from New Years Day until well after Halloween. Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas." [89]

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for

            And yet, McPhee has the objective of "doing a piece of writing that would describe not only the rocks exposed in roadcuts but the geologists with whom I traveled." [5] Therefore, before he says anything about geology, he comments on the bluejeans worn by his traveling companions. [19] He begins Book 3 by discussing the quaint communities and their earlier character as frontier towns in the old west [281-282]. McPhee is the sort of writer who hardly has to abandon the sensory impressions of the here and now just because he is also discussing events unfurling over unfathomable billions of years. Writing from the stream of consciousness, at the same time he's talking about the bedrock of the continent, he's talking about the food that hotel room service has just delivered to Cybill Shepherd, who's staying on the seventh floor. [616] I don't think any writer but McPhee could have pulled it off, but he does it superbly. He's not just a science writer; he's an artist who paints natural beauty with words, and his favorite subject is the story of our planet and the people who love it.

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Annals of the Former World , by John McPhee
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Table of Contents and List of Maps

Table of Contents

Annals of the Former World , by John McPhee
Table of Contents

A Narrative Table of Contents					      5
Table of Contents						      15-16


   Transcontinental Time Line : the Present			      25-28
   Transcontinental Time Line : Late Triassic			      28-31
   Why Would an English Major Write about Rocks?		      31-32
   Set Piece on Geologic Time					      69-99
   Transcontinental Time Lines : Mississippian / Pennsylvanian	      92-95
   Set Piece on Plate Tectonics 				      115-131
   Ken Deffeyes Predicts Nevada Seaway				      137-143


   The Biography of Anita Harris				      147-142
   The Geology of New York City 				      157-162
   The Delaware Water Gap as a Fragment of the Appalachians	      146, 182-209
   The Appalachians and Plate Tectonics 			      209-244
   The Theory of Continental Glaciation 			      254-275
   Origins of Coal						      245-248
   Petroleum in Pennsylvania					      248-251
   Transcontinental Time Lines : Cambrian - Ordovician		      189-191
   Transcontinental Time Lines : Early and Late Silurian	      199-201
   Cautionary Arguments about Plate Tectonic Theory		      147-149, 217-232, 274-275


   Rawlins and the Spread of Time				      294-297
   The Laramide Orogeny 					      310-312
   The Burial and Exhumation of the Rocky Mountains		      313-316
   Love Ranch and Family History				      281-282, 287-294, 299-308, 332-356
   The Geologic History of Jackson Hole and the Tetons		      366-378
   Field Geology v. Black Box Geology				      380-386
   Set Piece on Geophysical Hot Spots				      388-403
   Transcontinental Time Line : Eocene				      409-410
   Wyoming Environmental Mantage				      403-427
	Coal							      404-408
	Oil Shale						      412-413
	Trona							      415-416
	Oil and Gas in the Overthrust Belt			      417-419
	Oil in Yellowstone Park 				      419-421
	Sedimentary Uranium					      421-425


   The Gold Rush of the Nineteenth Century			      454-472
   Ophiolites : Transported Ocean Crust 			      476-511
   The Smartville Block 					      479-40, 484-491, 502, 504, 506
   Cyprus							      511-519
   Greece							      519-526
   Crown King, Arizona						      526-535
   The Great Central Valley					      535-544
   The Coast Ranges						      544-554
   World Ophiolites and Global Tectonics			      554-570
   The Geology of San Francisco 				      570-581
   The San Andreas Family of Faults				      581-603
	The Hayward Fault					      600-602
   1992 Earthquakes, New Fault at Landers and Joshua Tree	      587-588
   1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake					      603-620


   The Midcontinent Riff					      624, 628-629, 636, 651, 654-655, 658-659
   The Oldest Rock						      630, 632, 648
   The Earliest Beginnings of the World 			      630-631
   The Archaen Cratons						      631-633
   Oxygen and the Precipitation of Banded Iron			      634
   The Beginning of Modern Plate Tectonics			      634
   The Coalescence of the Canadian Shield			      633, 636-638
   The Arcs of Nebraska and Colorado				      638-645
   Radiometric Dating, Magnetic and Gravity Anomolies, and Well Cores 645-656
   The Andean Margin of Kansas					      650-651
   The Perforation of North America				      652-653
   Transcontinental Time Line : Middle Protozoic		      657-658

   List of Maps 						      663
   Index							      665
   Geologic Time Scale						      697

List of Maps

Annals of the Former World , by John McPhee
List of Maps

   North America - latitude 20 degrees to 55 degrees		     2-3
   Basin and Range Province in Nevada and Utah			     43
   Major Lithospheric Plates and Some Minor Ones		     122-123
   Pennsylvania and New Jersey					     211
   Appalachians 						     237
   Indiana and Ohio						     253
   Wyoming							     278-279
   North Pacific Floor						     391
   California							     430
   California Gold Camps and the Smartville Block		     459
   Australia and Indonesia Resembling the American Mesozoic West     499
   Remains of Tethys : Mediterranean, Black, Caspian, Aral seas      512
   Ocean Spreading Centers					     515
   Coast Ranges West of Davis, Pull-Apart Basins		     545
   Continental Escape and the Burma Syntaxis			     565
   San Francisco Region 					     573
   San Andreas Family of Faults 				     596
   Midcontinent Rift						     624
   Triple Junction : East African Rift Valley, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea 629
   Spread-Apart Coasts of India and Madagascar			     635
   Archean Cratons and Orogenic Belts				     637

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Annals of the Former World , by John McPhee
Paperback [701 pages] Hardcover [701 pages] Audio Cassette [abridged]
Link to the site main index :
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Link to our SCIENCE BOOKS page