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Basin and Range

(Annals of the Former World #1)

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  3,261 ratings  ·  246 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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Average rating 4.20  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,261 ratings  ·  246 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
Left Coast Justin
Nov 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I read this long ago, but am going through a review-writing drought as I work my way through two very long other books.

Back in my college days, I once, with two other people, rented half of a duplex in the 'student ghetto' adjoining the university. Because space was so tight, my delightful roommate Maureen would leave a lot of her school-related stuff heaped up in the living room. One day I spied this slender volume resting atop a stack of thick, boring textbooks and asked her about it, since it
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
Ben Goldfarb
Mar 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Incredible to reflect on just how recently plate tectonics became settled science.
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
Feb 08, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Classic perspective provider.
Developed an interest in geology after moving to Central Oregon, where USA's early astronauts trained in the rich array of diverse landscapes. Have since spent many hours with Mister McPhee.
Here in Crook County, the geographic center of Oregon, the land is also divided between Basin and Range domain and Columbia River drainage. The Maury Mountains in the south section of the county separate the Basin from the Crooked River drainage in the Ochoco Mountains. The Cr
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.
Jul 12, 2021 rated it really liked it
My favorite parts are the parts where he just recites geological terms. “Frasnian. Givetian. Eifelian. Emsian. Pragian.” “Laccoliths. Bismaliths. Bathyliths.” Half joking, of course. Not about the fact that he does this, which he does. Making geological approachable is a tall order I think, because as he notes it’s a “descriptive” science. Prolix might be the better word. I went in craving a rundown of foundational principles, so was a little disappointed. But I think that’s really because geolo ...more
Craig Werner
Jun 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, nature, 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. ...more
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!
Sep 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
See the review for Annals of the Former World for the beginning of this review.

My last thought for the book is the idea that as the North American Continent is spreading apart in the Basin and Range (from Salt Lake City to Reno which are spreading about 1 inch every ten years, and dipping into Mexico), it will open an ocean. “The Red Sea of today was what the Atlantic and its two sides had looked like about twenty million years after the Atlantic began to open. The Red Sea today was what the Bas
Apr 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
“The Himalaya is the crowning achievement of the vigorous Australian Plate, of which India is the northernmost extremity. India in the Oligocene, completing its long northward journey, crashed head on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed in under the newly created Tibetan plateau and drove the Himalaya 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. ...more
Jeff Garrison
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
Jan 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020reads
Poet about rocks.
This could be parts of a textbook except for that he refuses to diagram and chart and explains everything in language meant for feelings. I don’t know what dozens of the terms mean, but he gets it across anyway. Geology seems pretty mystical and he touches on that. Mostly I am swept up in thinking about mountains and drift and veins and plates and the fundamental smallness of humans. It’s great.

Mostly in this book: Nevada, the Basin and Range as a pattern for mountain making. H
Tough book to read, especially the first third. Beautifully written, but I'm not sure the author had any intention of being well understood by the general public all the way through. And yet the first third especially is written as though for the general audience, but one who loves long words without knowing their meanings. The book becomes much more understandable as the author covers geologic periods and plate tectonics and even mining. Definitely not an introduction to geology, it barely cove ...more
Nov 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
This one has been on my list for a while. Its a good book, pretty readable and a lot of interesting geology. Its written by a writer and not a scientist but it's still full of terms and science that I wish I had the capacity to retain. It's not too long and it gave me a better understanding of plate tectonics, geological age, mountain formation and the dynamic nature - albeit spread over hundreds of millions of years - of the earth. There were some interesting things about the Wasatch Range and ...more
May 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: comforting, nature
I found this book on the clearance rack at a thrift store and bought it on a whim; it looked interesting and I had never read a geology book before. I took my time reading this book and I truly savored it. For some reason I experienced this highly technical and fairly complex book as comforting and poetic. I have no idea why I enjoyed this book so much. I learned a lot of new things I have never thought of before, bringing a new and fresh perspective to my view of the world and its terrain. I wi ...more
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. ...more
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.
May 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"If by some fiat, I had to restrict this all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: the summit of Mt. Everest is made of marine limestone."

But I'm also going to have to make a tag for "read aloud, during Pandemic."
Bev Atwood
I didn't finish this one. It was interesting to start, but didn't hold, even though I generally enjoy the study of the anomalies geological formations. ...more
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
Oct 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can't overstate how good of a writer John McPhee is. He never overdoes it; he never outstays his welcome. He doesn't pander, but he also keeps his explanations understandable for the generalist. This book is about the geology of the United States, about what has made the landscape the way it is, and how geologists have arrived at their current timelines and theories. McPhee follows several geologists who take him to various sites on or near I-80; he lingers at a few locations, but my favorite ...more
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 a fa
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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

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  As dedicated readers already know, some of the best and most innovative stories on the shelves come from the constantly evolving realm of...
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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.” 51 likes
“A million years is a short time - the shortest worth messing with for most problems. You begin tuning your mind to a time scale that is the planet's time scale. For me, it is almost unconscious now and is a kind of companionship with the earth.” 6 likes
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