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Annals of the Former World

(Annals of the Former World #5)

4.35  ·  Rating details ·  3,672 ratings  ·  271 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, 720 pages
Published January 6th 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published June 10th 1998)
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Sydney Riemer What Peggy said. However, if you are looking for a book on European geology I'd recommend THE MOUNTAINS OF SAINT FRANCIS - DISCOVERING THE GEOLOGIC EV…moreWhat Peggy said. However, if you are looking for a book on European geology I'd recommend THE MOUNTAINS OF SAINT FRANCIS - DISCOVERING THE GEOLOGIC EVENTS THAT SHAPED OUR EARTH by Walter Alvarez. I haven't read it myself but I intend to as it has good reviews.

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Jul 01, 2007 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. ...more
Aug 25, 2011 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
I’m glad I’m not beyond the age where books I read can change the way I see the world. If that is an age you can reach, I don’t want to. I can’t even drive down the highway now without seeing something as simple as roadcuts in a whole different light.

I’ve said this before, but in another life, I must have been a geologist. Or like McPhee, at least making a study of that place where language and the earth overlap. Nothing fascinates me more.

This was beyond fantastic. I’ll keep reading it for yea
Lois Bujold
Dec 06, 2013 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
"Geologists, in their all but closed conversation, inhabit scenes that no one ever saw, scenes of global sweep, gone and gone again, including seas, mountains, rivers, forests, and archipelagoes of aching beauty rising in volcanic violence to settle down quietly and then forever disappear—almost disappear.”

“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.”

My first review will be in Annals and then
Jeff Bach
Aug 19, 2012 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
Jun 11, 2007 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
May 13, 2014 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
Apr 03, 2018 marked it as possible-purchase
Based on my friend, Caterina's review of one of the books contained within this compilation, I think this might make an excellent gift for a young man I know. ...more
Jul 24, 2012 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
May 24, 2008 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
Easton Smith
Sep 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
A trip across I-80, a long wade through the minutia of various academic squabbles, a pleasant foray into the history of gold mining, homesteading, and the movement of trillions of tons of rock.

I would highly recommend some of the books within this book, specifically: Basin and Range and Rising from the Plains. The others lost themselves a bit in the tectonic movements and chemistry experiments. Or at least they lost me. Could also be that I'm partial to the arid west.

But still worth the slog f
Jul 03, 2012 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
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
May 10, 2007 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
Sep 17, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: geology
To fully appreciate this book I think some firsthand knowledge of the American landscape is necessary. I possess only the slightest seen-with-my-own-eyes-familiarity on the subject and although I have read a lot about it that's not the same thing. I therefore found the book hard to follow at some times. Still for Americans who know their country well this should be one of the best and more accessable books on North American geology I reckon. A little outdated perhaps. ...more
Jan Kolmas
Aug 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommended by a friend. At times I found it hard to stay focused because of the back and forth jumps in space (east - west) and in time (human history - geologic history), but despite that it gave me a great appreciation of geology, Earth, mountains, etc. Whether I look at a rock, a cliff or a terrain map, it will not be the same.
Feb 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
An amazing read of you are into geology but aren’t entirely super educated on it- though definitely helps to already have some of the base understanding. I’m in California right now and being able to look at rock outcrops and see how the earth moved as explained by the book was very exciting.
Going to be staring at more rock outcrops for sure.
Nov 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
One of the geologist-contacts of John McPhee explains the impact his professional life has on his perspective: "You care less about civilization. Half of me gets upset with civilization. The other half does not get upset. I shrug and think, So let the cockroaches take over." This, in a nutshell, is the escapism offered by this particular Pulitzer-winning magnum opus. Yeah, that CO2 buildup and our plastic debris will leave a permanent mark, but four billion years of rocks don't care about your p ...more
Aug 24, 2010 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
Lorne S.
Sep 23, 2010 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
Aug 14, 2011 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
Roger Neyman
Dec 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I love this book, originally published as four separate books and a short paper.

You need to have some patience with the tumble of obscure terms that McPheee consciously plays off of, but if you have any taste for the depth of science, and its connection to the human world, you're sure to enjoy McPhee's insights into human nature and the progress and process of science.

There is a narrative table of contents sort of guide to be found, which will steer you to particular passages. (It is a big boo
Ben Crandell
Mar 06, 2011 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. ...more
Jul 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Reading this 660-page book on geology never felt like a chore. I found, as I was flipping through page after page about ophiolites and batholiths and supergene enrichments, hot spots and tectonic plate theory and glaciation events, the Archaean and the Proterozoic and the Cenozoic eras, transform faults and subduction zones and rift valleys, accreting island arcs and basin and range formations and valleys made entirely by wind, that I was not reading to learn, but reading to enjoy. That's becaus ...more
John Robinson
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I adore this book, and wish there was an audiobook version of it (maybe there is and I've just sucked at finding it). McPhee is, to my mind, anyhow, the best natural history writer out there, and this omnibus edition of his geographical history of the United States (excluding, if memory serves, Hawaii) proves it. It is, in places, a slow read, which fits with the subject...I tend to use this for bedtime reading when I feel to braindead to try and contemplate something like Umberto Eco, Unamuno, ...more
Mar 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was my mom's graduation present to me for an Earth Sci degree. It's pretty long and the geology is a bit outdated in places but it's pretty compelling. It's interesting to hear first-hand accounts of plate tectonics coming in to shake up the narrative. Not everyone was instantly convinced! ...more
Sep 07, 2015 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 Appalach ...more
Dec 26, 2008 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
Nov 20, 2011 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
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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)
  • Basin and Range
  • In Suspect Terrain
  • Rising from the Plains
  • Assembling California

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60 likes · 5 comments
“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.” 30 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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