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Annals of the Former World (Annals of the Former World #5)

4.33  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,442 Ratings  ·  176 Reviews
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
Paperback, 712 pages
Published January 6th 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1998)
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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonA Brief History of Time by Stephen HawkingCosmos by Carl SaganThe Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Best Science Books - Non-Fiction Only
131st out of 1,023 books — 2,485 voters
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Looming Tower by Lawrence WrightThe Guns of August by Barbara W. TuchmanThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard RhodesThe Prize by Daniel Yergin
Pulitzer Winners: General Non-fiction
32nd out of 58 books — 200 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Apr 26, 2016 Darwin8u rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: aere-perennius, 2013
If by some fiat, I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence; this is the one I would choose: the summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone.”
― John McPhee, Annals of the Former World


What I absolutely love about McPhee's nonfiction is his ability to write about place, people and ideas 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. McPhee picks up pie
Jul 01, 2007 Samuel rated it it was amazing
Absolutely, bar none, the finest work of American natural science that I've ever read. McPhee has the eye of a scientist and the soul of a poet, and it makes for truly astonishing writing. I don't like to pile on the superlatives, but this is probably one of my ten favorite books of all time.
Dec 04, 2013 Leif rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pulitzers
This was my first foray into John McPhee's work. And a weighty foray it was : This hefty tome consists of four previously-published McPhee books assembled into one spine, augmented with a fifth chapter.

McPhee's often staccato prose takes the reader on a tour of the geology of the lower 48, as seen largely in the roadcuts of Interstate 80, separated into five major segments : the Appalachians, the Midwest, Wyoming, Nevada, and California. Although I found myself lacking an understanding of variou
Jun 11, 2007 Annie rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: environmental educators, folks interested in the land they live on
I've only read parts of this book, since there are many different books included in this version of his geologic exploration of a cross-section of the US. I have a few things to say. #1. Read Rising from the Plains as you're driving in the Tetons. #2. Read any other section as you're driving in the area described. Your road trip will become something entirely different if you can see what you're reading about. #3. Read these books when you're planning a trip to any of the areas discussed. #4. Ju ...more
It may seem odd, but this book takes my breath away and makes me feel alive.

It is about geology, and how McPhee spent years with geologists trying to make sense of the science and present it in an interesting and engaging way. I think they call it “big picture” geology and it is one of my favorite topics in life. I love most the paragraphs where he takes us from New Jersey to California say in Triassic time (250 million years ago) and describes the terrain; then turns us around 200 million year
Jeff Bach
Aug 19, 2012 Jeff Bach rated it it was amazing
As a geology major, a former gold miner, and finally as a hydrogeologist, the earth and its water have always fascinated me. Reading John McPhee is always a delight because he takes what remains mostly a poorly done body of work in mostly scientific terms and turns an explanation of how the earth came to be into a readable and engaging topic. Something just about anyone can enjoy provided they have the curiosity and interest in wondering how so much stunning geography came to be where it is and ...more
Lois Bujold
Dec 06, 2013 Lois Bujold rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in pop sci
Recommended to Lois by: random internet review

A most excellent remedy for insomnia, and (speaking as a sufferer) I do not mean that pejoratively. The perfect book for reading a little bit at bedtime every night, easy to pick up and put down, but still worth the reading. It lasted me about 6 weeks; not sure what I'll use now. (Well, I suppose there's still E. O. Wilson's The Ants, but I'm not sure my arms are strong enough to hold it up...)

Layer by layer, McPhee sediments one's grasp of deep time, and of the geologists who study it. A little
Jul 15, 2008 X rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: geologists, professional and amateur
Recommended to X by: Dr. A
For pure enjoyment, I would really give this book 3 stars, but it merits 4 stars for the amount of research and information that is in it and for the wonderful writing style and occasional subtle humor. It is not a casual read, but for anyone interesting in geology is it worth the effort and somehow explains the principles of plate tectonics (and other things) without being overly technical. It also touches on the history of a few areas of the U.S., which at times got tedious, and the many "stor ...more
Jan 02, 2015 Kaylee rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, non-fiction
This book has a rhythm unlike anything else I've read, just like geology has a timescale that takes some time to wrap your head around. It's like an opera. Geology and opera both have a reputation of being long and boring, but they are also majestic and complex. This book is long, but it's not boring!

For a while, when I first started this book, my three-year-old wanted me to read every other page to her--the words were like poetry. You can't read it quickly. Reading out loud helped me settle do
Lorne S.
Sep 23, 2010 Lorne S. rated it it was amazing
The expression "it's written in stone" couldn't be more true than the story told in this magnificent tale of one writer's journey across a continent in the company of some of the world's leading geologists.

Mr. McPhee isn't afraid of using the correct scientific terminology, isn't worried that the verbiage might be over the heads of many readers. The result is a satisfying read that doesn't insult the intelligence of the reader because, above all else, his writing style is both informative AND en
Dec 21, 2010 TheGriffinReads rated it really liked it
Remember driving along a highway and passing through a road cut where the layers of stone in the hillside rise and descend as you pass. John McPhee began to wonder about these roadcuts and over several years compiled a geologic history of the United States through interviews and feild trips with geology professors from New York to San Francisco. His epic adventure immerses readers in deep deep time, a complex poetry of terminology, and a fascinating array of personal stories. He continually reco ...more
Sep 07, 2015 Chris rated it it was amazing
Now having read, finally, all four of McPhee's previous books on the geology of the fortieth parallel—roughy along the length of Interstate 80 from New York City to San Francisco—I can claim to have read this series-ending compendium volume which includes these four works in total. There is also a new, short chapter, "Crossing the Craton," some 45 pages, which I read at the Barnes & Noble "library." This later material, rather superficially and uninterestingly, links his coverage of the Appa ...more
May 10, 2007 Ann rated it really liked it
A little out of date, but the only book to tackle the topic at an easy and interesting read. I used the audio version for several of the sections, but had the paper copy handy to look at the graphics, of which there could have been more. I'd like to see someone's update, and also to find the same slightly-more-than-layman read on other areas, such as the Brevard Zone in the southeast US. Someone should also come up with an annotated version as a travel guide, with lat/long of the points of inter ...more
Mar 07, 2015 Brett rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
If I knew more about geology I might give this a 5, but I don't so I didn't. For the average joe to pick this up and read through it would be a battle - especially if the subject doesn't interest him. But as Dennis Hopper said to Chris Walken in True Romance "this shit fascinates me." Different subject matter - same principle. I've always liked rocks and the thought of what went on before we got here - why things are the way they are - and what is going to continue long after we are gone has a c ...more
Dec 17, 2011 Dan rated it it was amazing
McPhee Travels Interstate 80 from the east to the west coast accompanied by a succession of experts in the geology of the regions along the way. He writes in a chatty and engaging style for a book about geology. It reads like a travelogue of an intelligent fellow and good writer curious to find out what he can about the landmass of the United States without too much technicality.

The author leavens the science with just the right amount of associated information: backgrounds and anecdotes about t
Nov 20, 2011 Patrick rated it it was amazing
This was a great book about geology. It is the perfect blend of science and narrative. McPhee is a wonderful writer who tackles an enormous subject, basically the geologic history of America. He follows I-80 across the country with different geologists and looks at road cuts to get a view of the geology of the area. Each section of the country gets its own treatment, and this long book is actually five works combined, each of which can be read separately. Throughout the work McPhee gives the re ...more
Jan 02, 2009 Mike rated it it was amazing
This is an amazing book about geology, geologists, plate tectonics, America, and time. It is comprised of four books previously published: Basin and Range (which I reviewed before and still stand by the review), In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California. A final essay about the "basement" of North America is attached as a coda to finish the book. While reading the book, the sense of geologic time overwhelmed me and I couldn't help thinking how arbitrary and pathetic h ...more
Darryl Brashier
Dec 15, 2012 Darryl Brashier rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, history, geology
This is a book of books. The book is an anthology of four previous books and a fifth published for the first time with this book. It covers geology, history, politics and more. It's a travel book and a fascinating look at geologists and their evolving views of the world as plate tectonics rewrote their science.

The broad sweep of the book is the geology of the American continent: how it came to be, how it changed through the ages. The anchor for this look is Interstate 80, running from New York C
Aug 01, 2012 Damien rated it it was amazing
Probably one of the best books I have ever read. Be prepared for some geologic rigamarole and a sense of patience and the timeline of ages will unfold. Its a compilation of all of McPhee's writings about American continental Geology. I know, sounds dull, but he uses the lives and characters of the Geologists whose work he is describing along with the massive narrative arc of plate tectonics and the history of the science itself. The story of America's westward expansion along with the Romantic e ...more
Sep 20, 2011 Kristine rated it really liked it
This book was a gift from a good friend who gave it to me when I switched from biology to geology as a major in college. In "Annals of the Former World" McPhee takes us on a journey through time and space by examining the geology of North America (mostly) along I-80. It's been 11 years since I graduated, and longer since I read the book, but I remember the material I learned in my classes that last year of college really coming to life as I read the McPhee's evocative language. McPhee's essays a ...more
Mar 15, 2013 Karl rated it it was amazing
A tour de force. Ostensibly a popular study of the geology of the United States along I-80, it's really the author's goal to teach all of us why geologists fall in love with geology. I'd always thought geology was "just rocks" until I read this. But McPhee takes you into the lives of his geologist guides, teaches you about the big breakthroughs in the science, and takes you through some geological events, some slow (like orogeny, one of my new favorite words) and some fast (the Loma Prieta earth ...more
May 18, 2013 JP rated it it was amazing
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, 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 collecti ...more
Ben Bedard
Jun 25, 2012 Ben Bedard rated it it was amazing

An instant classic of nonfiction, this book is simply a masterpiece. A book that shows us the earth we live on in fascinating detail and history. From the Precambrian to the San Francisco earthquakes of the twentieth century, John McPhee illuminates the vast amount of history under out feet. If you've ever had an interest in rocks or continental history, or wanted to explore how mountains came to be, this is a book you must own. Not only does it explain some complicated theories of geology, McPh
Dec 24, 2008 Ellen rated it it was amazing
What a mind-blowingly comprehensive compilation of writing on a geologic cross section of America through characterizations of off-beat geniuses and possessed rock-hounds. Totally awesome. I was reading part of this while on a bus with students heading East on I-80 through Wyoming and was totally enraptured with the very interpretation through the book of the bleak landscape surrounding me. Who knew I was looking at billions of years in time with a mere 50 minute drive from point to point? That ...more
May 09, 2011 Benjamin rated it did not like it
When I moved to New York a number of years ago, I would tell people I was a geologist, and they would tell me how much they loved John McPhee's books. I had never heard of him, and decided to check out his book at the library.

The story follows J.D. Love, a well known geologist from Wyoming, who I was familiar with, and sort of a roll-call of the formations and landscapes of Wyoming and the rocky mountains. For the most part it was boring as hell! There was a bit of comedy in the New Yorker reta
Once upon a time I was a geology student. In gloomy Victorian halls and on sunny limestone outcrops we tried to get siltstones and schists and garnets to sing to us, to reveal their secrets.

Sadly, as in all the sciences, many geologists aren't very good storytellers. That's why we have John McPhee. Through his prose, mountains tell their stories. While the stories collected in Annals of the Former World, don't compare to his masterful The Control of Nature, their still pretty wonderful. Geology
Cathy Huang
Mar 30, 2015 Cathy Huang rated it it was amazing
The road-trip conceit that shapes the book also limits it. It limits the book to land (generally) and the continental United States (specifically). Occasionally we make detours to Hawai'i, Switzerland, Indonesia, or Greece, but the idea seems to be that North American geology illustrates the whole world, not the other way round. The road-trip conceit also privileges field geology over other kinds of geology (such as geophysical modeling). Even the geophysicists in the book, like Moores in Assemb ...more
Ben Crandell
Mar 06, 2011 Ben Crandell rated it really liked it
This is a collection of geology books. Each book focuses on a geologic province of North America, so there are five books describing the five geologic provinces of North America. McPhee pals around with the respective expert of each province and interprets the "big picture" of geology to us all. This book- these five books - tell a history of Earth which puts our own human existence in a different perspective. John McPhee is the king of scientific analogies. Very well done.
Charles Greer
Jan 07, 2011 Charles Greer rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-it-twice
A compendium of incredibly readable and illuminating books about the Earth's geology and geologists, with focus on plate tectonics. There's nothing like this book anywhere. It puts the scale of the universe into your mind so that you can comprehend the sliver of time and space available to the individual human, and start to picture the vastness of time and space in general. You'll start seeing the pictures in rocks, the histories in roadcuts.
William Korn
Apr 04, 2014 William Korn rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays, science
John McPhee ranks among the greatest essayists of his time. He has the uncanny ability to make fascinating any endeavor of human beings, science, or nature from the travails of driving a hazmat truck to the beauties of the Alaskan wilderness to the construction and operation of canoes. His writing style is a marvel to behold, and he keeps his readers honest by not dumbing down the narrative. McPhee will never use a 50-cent word when a $5 word is available.

When the subject of his essay happens to
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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...

Other Books in the Series

Annals of the Former World (5 books)
  • Basin and Range
  • In Suspect Terrain
  • Rising from the Plains
  • Assembling California

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“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” 15 likes
“The Himalayas are the crowning achievement of the Indo-Australian plate. India in the Oligocene crashed head on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed into the newly created Tibetan plateau and drove the Himalayas five and a half miles into the sky. The mountains are in some trouble. India has not stopped pushing them, and they are still going up. Their height and volume are already so great they are beginning to melt in their own self-generated radioactive heat. When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in a warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as 20,000 feet below the sea floor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth.

If by some fiat, I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence; this is the one I would choose: the summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone.”
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