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Basin and Range

4.19 of 5 stars 4.19  ·  rating details  ·  1,827 ratings  ·  102 reviews
The first of John McPhee’s works in his series on geology and geologists, Basin and Range is a book of journeys through ancient terrains, always in juxtaposition with travels in the modern world—a history of vanished landscapes, enhanced by the histories of people who bring them to light. The title refers to the physiographic province of the United States that reaches from ...more
Paperback, 215 pages
Published 1984 (first published 1981)
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The Hotel New Hampshire by John IrvingCujo by Stephen KingGorky Park by Martin Cruz SmithRed Dragon by Thomas HarrisChronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
Best Books of 1981
24th out of 92 books — 77 voters
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara EhrenreichA Walk in the Woods by Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonThe Constitution of the United States of America by James Madison1984 by George Orwell
President Obama's Summer Reading List
257th out of 277 books — 148 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,811)
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Rocks. A book on rocks. A book on rocks that rocks. There was a time when I would've assumed that a head full of rocks was a prerequisite for reading a book on rocks. There was a time when I wasn't aware of John McPhee. McPhee rocks.

Why? This book rocks because it's really about time, or as McPhee calls it, "deep time" -- the mind-blowing discovery that the planet is a pebble or two older than, say 40,000 years, which, once upon a time, was the received wisdom about Mother Earth's age. Turns out
This book had such potential to be a 5 star, but alas...

I have a great interest in geology/paleontology and was excited to read a book that would lay out geology and geological subjects in such a way as to make it interesting to us lay-folk. McPhee attempts to do this by following a geologist along I-80 in the Basin and Range (Nevada and western Utah) and intermingling this region's interesting geologic history with the story of the geologist. This approach was both good and bad, making the book
Reading things other than your palm, or the cracks in your ceiling, or the sun dial weeds and overgrowth outside the unattended garden in the hotel courtyard of your undemolishable rooming building (historic certification). Lavender grows wild there between chipped bricks and pieces of window sash, and a rusted outdoor chair.

Frantic readings, tempests of the scouring eye! Only an earthquake could do in this place you say to yourself. A good 50 mile per hour wind might well knock out the window
Dec 08, 2007 X rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: geologists or people interested in geology
This was surprisingly good. It's not something I would have read if I hadn't needed to for school, but it was very interesting, and I may consider reading the rest of the series. The book covered mountain building, volcanism, mining, plate tectonics, and continental drift, and also gave brief historical accounts of famous geologists, while describing the author's field trip with a geology professor. At times it seemed to skip around too much, though it always came back to the main point of cont ...more
Douglas Dalrymple
I was the man walking all over San Francisco with a pillow under his arm. It was the wrong kind of pillow and I had to exchange it. I got a few looks aboard the train. I suffered a few comments at the office too. But the lunch-hour march down Townsend Street was the worst part: a wind in the February style, shin splints from a hard pace, slanting rain in the eyes, and mud puddles for sidewalks through an industrial sector of the city. Then there were the art students, twenty or thirty of them, s ...more
Aug 19, 2009 Margie rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: rock hounds,
Recommended to Margie by: a cast of thousands
Shelves: geoscience, series
This would be two-and-half stars, if that were an option.

I very much wanted to love this book. It's been recommended to me multiple times by multiple people, even long before I started working with geologists, long before I held oolites in my hand, or saw an angular unconformity, or got to know Walter Alvarez.

Although I'm not an earth scientist, I'm familiar with most of the ideas in the book, and recognized many of the words. I'm interested in geology. So I was presumably in the target audienc
I had heard about John's more popular titles while in college, Encounters..., In Control of Nature, etc. and heard all the good things about his writing, but had never read him. I picked up Basin and Range as something to read while my dad entered his cancer-induced coma and I would keep him company while he was dying. The book was the perfect combination of escape and realism for me at the time. It gave me relief during my grief and and gave me something to look forward to after the imminent de ...more
It's a pleasure to read this book concerning the Great Basin while living in the Great Basin, it sent my mind soaring over the surrounding area many times in search of remembered examples. In fact, this book could have benefited from pictures and graphs and such because I might not have understood it as well if my mind wasn't familiar with the terrain, but then images would interrupt the brisk prose that often sends the reader careening back into unthinkable stretches of time. Reading this book ...more

There was much to love about this book, but also
a few things that for me were mildly off-putting.

First, some things that resonated for me:

• McPhee's passion for Nature & decoding
some of its mysteries is, hopefully, contagious

• Floating on the Great Salt Lake - water
so saline that only his shoulders, buttocks
and heels seemed to be wet. As if he were a
huge Water Strider, supported only by surface

• Bishop Ussher and his "calculation" for
the age of the Earth - being off by a
Josh Duggan
Whenever I am handed a book that someone tells me I should read, it feels like a homework assignment.

I am not in school.

I shouldn't have homework.

Moreover, there is a sort of immediacy to the required reading that tends to add stress to the equation, seeing as though the picture is colored by the act of lending.

This book was one of those situations in which a book was handed to me. To add to the reticence with which I undertook this task, the book's subject matter was field geology.

What's go
What I absolutely love about McPhee's nonfiction is his ability to write about place (Bason and Range), people (Deffeyes) and ideas (plate tectonics) with both beautiful prose and amazing intimacy. My favorite parts are where McPhee weaves place and people, or people and ideas together and establishes the grand metaphor for his book. Example:

At any given moment, no two geologists are going to have their heads exactly the same level of acceptance of all hypotheses and theories that are floating a
John McPhee must be one of the best science-and-nature writers alive, or dead. In Basin and Range, he follows scientists to rock formations in the U.S. and takes us through geologic history starting with their eyes and theories. Geology is a subject about which I am especially, embarrassingly ignorant, and this placed me on the road to rocky rectitude, giving me dim hope that I might understand a fraction of what I see on an average hike someday.

McPhee covers plate tectonics, the composition of
Great science told in an artful voice. An extremely observant writer, this book is as unstructured as it is purposeful with its lack of structure, it simply carries you on journey after journey and helps you learn on the way.

Now I want to be a geologist. These are the types of books that could influence your whole life if read at an early age, and this book is especially accessible despite its verbiage, it even makes fun of its own absurd vocabulary.

Highly recommended. The best type of science w
Flabbergasting, the science of geology told artfully. I am gobsmacked by the geologic megapicture. There is a most surprising confession two thirds of the way through this book, an encounter I won't spoil but the most convincing account I've personally heard regarding things inexplicable. McPhee shares the moment with his pal, a professor at Princeton, and a hundred locals. Which is more unlikely, the Earth, the stars, or consciousness itself!?
Apr 15, 2008 Inder rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Inder by: Marc
Shelves: science, western-us
I read Basin and Range while driving through the basins and ranges of the Western U.S. a few years ago. This is a great piece of lay science, although the prose is at times over the top. Still, what I gleaned from this book has stuck with me, and informs my passion for that well-kept-secret - the ups and downs east of the Sierras and west of the Rockies.
3 3/4 stars would be more accurate. The book is descriptively dense - think Dickens, not Nature. I had to consume it in small chunks. McPhee exhibits the lyrical writing of a humanities background turned toward the sciences, a precursor to Bill Bryson.
I never would have read this on my own; it was a class assignment. But it was surprisingly fascinating for a book on rock formations. I regret getting rid of it. I think I was trying to raise some quick cash to buy ramen noodles or something.
Even though it was written over 30 years ago, it might be the most eloquent description of plate tectonics, historical geology, and the geology of the Great Basin ever written!
This was a Kindle book, so I couldn't rip it up like one person who intensely disliked the book. Author's academic stream of consciousness is not understood by the average reader (me). I should have been forewarned in this example from the publisher's review: "...lyrical evocation of the science of geology, with important digressions..." In that sentence, there are at least three words that require a dictionary and all sentences are like that. Author's vocabulary is voluminous and his academic s ...more
Jon Hurd
Loved this book. McPhee's writing makes me want to change my life, and wish that I had become a Geologist.
This one was a disappointment. I was hoping this series of books would explain geology to a layperson, but it seems to be written with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with a vast number of terms. I am not quite sure who the intended audience is since it is probably too basic for those in the geology profession, but too difficult for the novice to understand. The emphasis was more on listing geological terms rather than to explain geological concepts.

The other aspect of this bo
Catherine  Mustread
Aug 26, 2010 Catherine Mustread rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Catherine by: Nonfiction Celebrating the West
Never thought geology, rocks and earth science could be so interesting but McPhee's writing and enthusiasm for his subject pulled me in and I thoroughly enjoyed this book about the history of geology, and his focus specifically on the area in Utah, Nevada, eastern California, and Wyoming traversed by Interstate 80. He writes of road cuts, polar shifting, continental drift, and scientists. It was the "road" part that initially appealed to me but obviously this book cuts much deeper into time and ...more
John McPhee can make anything interesting. His book Basin and Range chronicles his travels across Interstate 80 with geologist Kenneth Deffeyes. And rocks are interesting. Basin and Range takes the reader on a geological history tour of the United States, and the continent’s westward movement.
McPhee uses a variety of techniques throughout the text, some more effective than others. His descriptions that use a series of short crisp sentences engage the reader—one can see Deffeyes with his “tenu
“I once dreamt about a great fire that broke out at night at Nasser Aftab’s House of Carpets. In Aftab’s showroom under the queen-post trusses were layer upon layer and pile after pile of shags and broadlooms, hooks and throws, para-Persians and polyesters. The intense and shriveling heat consumed or melted most of what was there. The roof gave way. It was a night of cyclonic winds, stabs of unseasonal lightning. Flaming debris fell on the carpets. Layers of ash descended, alighted, swirled in t ...more
The third of McPhee's books that I have read, and completely up to par with the others in terms of clarity of writing, choice of subject matter, well-written characterizations of people, and ability to explain esoteric concepts to the layman.

Using Interstate 80 as a route of travel and a veteran Princeton geologist as a guide, McPhee travels across the continent, learning facts about geology that are relevant on a variety of levels, i.e. from passing curiosity (why is that rock that color?) to
Seeing as how this book was part of Annals, his Pulitzer book and the only reason people know who McPhee is, expectations were high, and maybe too high.

It was ok, and it definately wasn't great -even without expectations.

McPhee doesn't use illustrations or pictures and doesn't skirt jargon (though many books have a chapter or a section about the jargon). In many books this isn't an issue, but when it comes to geology many of the passages are fairly incomprehensible.

Ironically, this book for me h
In his witty and lyrical style, McPhee presents some complex geological ideas with respect to the formation of the Basin and Range region in the USA. He brings the geology alive with excursions into the history of geology and his own interactions with current geologists as they explore road cuts and other visible geologic events. This book offers a helpful introduction to deep time, the history of geology, the importance of the Basin and Range, and some insights into the process of science.
I read this as a portion of Annals of the Former World, but I burned out on its gargantuan length soon after finishing book one of three.

I want to understand geology in order to point to the layers of sediment on the side of a Pennsylvania highway and say "This is how it happened!", an indispensable merit badge for a one-day father. This book covers the basin and range pattern of the American West along I-80 in Utah and Nevada. It's an interesting, surprisingly violent history padded with remind
Ed Terrell
"Beautiful crystals imply slow growth" and so the book should be slowly read, as if sitting before an impressionistic work like "water lilies" taking it all in. We fly Peter-Pan-like past glacial lakes of the Wisconsin time, a 1 million years ago, and view islands peaking up above the waters surface, while the rivers at flood stage do their scouring and devouring. Then we jump again another 100 million years back before the seas came and the land is covered in basaltic blacks still steaming and ...more
I read this once before (just B&R, not the entirety of McPhee's Annals of the Former World), but it's definitely something that deserves a second reading, since I retained only enough to be inspired to look out at certain geological features of the West with admiring awe. And I learned some heavy vocabulary words ("allochthonous," "inselberge," "travertine," and the neologistic-but-spectacular "blobularly"), but I probably couldn't pass a test on the intricacies of the subject (maybe a gener ...more
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
More about John McPhee...
Coming into the Country Encounters With the Archdruid The Control of Nature Annals of the Former World The Pine Barrens

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“If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.” 32 likes
“I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes.” 6 likes
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