Annals of the Former World

John McPhee

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
Annals of the Former World is a geological tour of the United States, crossing the continent on the Interstate 80. It combines a multi-faceted view of geology — an introduction to some basic theory, the particulars of North American geological history, and something of the history and sociology of the science — with elements of travel narrative, biography, and history, melding this mixture together almost seamlessly. Annals of the Former World brings together and updates four of McPhee's earlier books and adds a shorter work Crossing the Craton.

Basin and Range covers the "Basin and Range" of Nevada and Utah, along with a general introduction to plate tectonics and geological time, going back to James Hutton for a historical perspective. In company with geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, McPhee also touches on prospecting geology and the history of silver mining.

In Suspect Terrain looks at the orogenies (mountain building episodes), accretions, and erosions that built the east coast, with special attention paid to New York city and the Delaware water gap. McPhee travels with Anita Harris, discoverer of colour changes in conodonts as a measure of rock temperature (and something of a skeptic about plate tectonics); he also covers glacial geology and its history (going back to Agassiz) and the origins of coal and petroleum.

Wyoming has one of the most complex geologies of any of the United States, and the history of its criss-crossing mountain ranges is at the centre of Rising From the Plains. This is told from the perspective of geologist David Love, with his parents' story and his own upbringing on a remote ranch in the centre of the state providing background. Other topics touched on include the tensions between field and lab geologists, the theory of hot spots, wind erosion, and the ecological effects of mining and dams.

In Assembling California plate tectonics again takes centre stage, in particular oceanic spreading and ophiolites (pieces of ocean floor thrust above sea level). The focus is on the creation of California, but there are side trips to Cyprus and Macedonia and other parts of the world. Geologist Eldridge Moores provides the biographical focus and there are short but fascinating accounts of the gold rush and the 1989 California earthquake.

Crossing the Craton fills in the gap in the middle of the United States left by the previous books. In it we are treated to an early history of North America and a general introduction to Precambrian geology, where a date of 1740 means "1.74 billion years ago".

McPhee's books are not your run-of-the-mill popular science: like the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, they are memorable as much for their unique style as for their content, and for a virtuoso intertwining of the two that never seems artificial. The style will not be to everyone's taste — and some effects don't work perfectly — but I found the result compelling and urge anyone at all interested in geology to try at least one of the books in Annals of the Former World. And those with firsthand experience of the areas described will no doubt find much in the books that I missed.

January 2001

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- books about the United States + American history
- more geology
- more popular science
- more travel
- books published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- other "best book" selections
%T Annals of the Former World
%A McPhee, John
%I Farrar, Straus & Giroux
%D 1998
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 0374105200
%P 696pp