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Basin and Range

(Annals of the Former World #1)

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  2,798 ratings  ·  181 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, 240 pages
Published April 1st 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published April 1st 1981)
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Daniel If you mean legally, then sure, at any decent library, or through interlibrary loan, or through various online reading options that some libraries now…moreIf you mean legally, then sure, at any decent library, or through interlibrary loan, or through various online reading options that some libraries now offer. For example, my local library has two ebook copies on OverDrive, along with paper copies at three branches.(less)

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4.19  · 
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 ·  2,798 ratings  ·  181 reviews

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Apr 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012
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
Apr 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
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
Dec 17, 2008 rated it liked it
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 audien
May 16, 2010 rated it liked it
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
May 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 07, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Ben Goldfarb
Mar 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Incredible to reflect on just how recently plate tectonics became settled science.
Craig Werner
Jun 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nature, science, west
Interesting revisiting the work that more or less introduced me to the "geo-poetry" (pioneering geologist Harry Hess's term) of plate tectonics and brought a lyrical sense of deep geological time to life. Some details of our understanding of the earth's dynamics have changed, almost all of them in ways that confirm the basic vision. McPhee builds the book around his encounters with geologists and the basins and ranges fanning out from Interstate 80, primarily in the West, and nothing about eithe ...more
Brian Switek
Aug 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
I feel a little bad giving this book less than five stars. It's supposed to be an all-time classic for the geologically-minded. But while McPhee weaves some lovely geopoetry on his journey, intrusions in his prose can be denser than the rocks he's trying to describe. He's at his best when rhapsodizing about ideas and history, which the great expanses of the west certainly bring to mind.
Mar 16, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: got-rid-of
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.
Feb 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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!
Oct 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Starting with an idea of traveling Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco, John McPhee begins to explore the geology of America and the world. His search takes the reader deep into geology as well as the history of geology. What does New York's Palisades, Delaware Water's Gap, and Nevada's fault block mountains have in common? This book covers it!

The idea of range and basin as seen across the Great Basin (especially Nevada) is used as a laboratory to understand plate tectonics. It's intere
Scott Middleton
Dec 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
While mostly a book about rocks, this is the most engaging John McPhee outing I've read yet. He covers the "geopoetics" of the earth, the joys of roadtripping on I-80, and the dusty pace of life in Nevada's Basin and Range -- a region McPhee reveres almost as much as his native New Jersey. Amid long discourses on paleomagnetism, angular unconformities, and block faulting (perhaps a challenge for the impatient McPhee reader), he also delivers surprisingly absorbing tales of treasure hunting, Morm ...more
Aug 09, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is filled with signature McPhee writing. Concise, wise, measured. Great stuff. But I really struggled to get through this book. He has a way of using common language to describe quite technical and ungraspable concepts, so the end result is you just feel like you're going insane. I could grab 20 great paragraphs from this book, but I never want to look at the entirety ever again.
Jul 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has absolutely everything I love about geology -- both the topic itself, but more importantly what geology means, the story it tells about the past, present, and future, and how geology is a kind of destiny. What we see growing and flowing depends on what's underneath it all, and where mankind plays out his life on the world depends upon what grows where.

The writing is so personal and so interesting. 6 stars on a scale of 1-5.
Claudia Putnam
Whew. I stopped reading this for a while, and when I restarted, I had to go back to the beginning, because I hadn't retained enough, even though maybe only a year, or less, had passed.

A glossary would have helped. Also maps, diagrams, and photos or at least illustrations. While someone else I know, a poet, who happened to be reading this book at the same time, reminded me of McPhee's statement that geology is one of the more poetic/metaphoric "languages," of the sciences--country rock, outwash
Jun 21, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

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
Josh Duggan
Nov 20, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Stephany Wilkes
Mar 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012-reads, re-read
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
Nov 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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!?
Ryan Mishap
Though thirty years old, plate tectonics and continental drift were newly proven mere years before the 1980 publication of this delightful excursion into geology. McPhee--who is well-known but I hadn't heard of--is a very good writer and tour guide to our geologic history, the landscape, and plate tectonics. A writer's delight in the subject obviously prompted him to perform at his best.

Apr 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Inder by: Marc
Shelves: western-us, science
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.
Mar 24, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: own
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.
Mar 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Interesting to look back and read a book written when plate tectonics had first gained mainstream acceptance. I liked the concept of learning about the USA's geology by taking a road trip across I-80, and I had no idda the basin and range topography in Utah and Nevada was so unique.
Jeanne Ward
Jul 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
I live in this country and think of this book very often
Jon Hurd
Nov 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. McPhee's writing makes me want to change my life, and wish that I had become a Geologist.
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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

Other books in the series

Annals of the Former World (5 books)
  • In Suspect Terrain
  • Rising from the Plains
  • Assembling California
  • Annals of the Former World
“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.” 47 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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