ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD brings together in a single volume John McPhee’s four books on the geology and geological history of North America. The books also concern the scientists who compiled the complex story of the continent’s natural history; McPhee accompanied some of them on expeditions, describing their work and recording their ideas. Whether explaining something as specific as conodonts or as abstract as the grand sweep of geological time, McPhee writes with such jaunty freshness and clarity that his work stands well above other popular science.
The continent’s formation is the thematic vein running through the books, which have been indexed and edited to avoid repetition. BASIN AND RANGE (1981) explores the convoluted landscape of the Great Basin (Nevada) with Princeton professor Kenneth Deffeyes and summarizes plate tectonics theory. IN SUSPECT TERRAIN (1983) presents criticism of the theory in light of Appalachian Mountains geology and continental glaciation theory, under the guidance of geologist Anita Harris. RISING FROM THE PLAINS (1986) discusses the origins of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming with environmentalist- geologist David Love. ASSEMBLING CALIFORNIA (1993) concerns earthquakes and Eldridge Moores, an expert on the rock of ocean floors. The volume concludes with “Crossing the Craton,” a new essay. In it McPhee, with the help of geochronologist Randy Van Schmus, analyzes the Nebraska-Colorado-Kansas area, which rests upon some of the oldest rock on Earth.
Readers can get a more rigorous understanding of geology from a university-level course. If they did, though, they would miss McPhee’s humor, surprising analogies, love of technical vocabulary, and remarkable ability to give the slow, titanic, violent, subterranean movements that shape the Earth’s surface a dramatic human perspective.