Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338
In the late 1970’s, John McPhee began a series of trips across the United States, roughly at the fortieth parallel. In the four books that resulted, he has provided a geological cross-section of North America and a primer of plate tectonics. He has also done something more difficult to describe. Shifting from geological eras to “history” to the present, he has created an uncanny sense of the relativity of time.
“Then, a piece at a time — according to present theory— parts began to assemble. An island here, a piece of continent there — a Japan at a time, a New Zealand, a Madagascar — came crunching in upon the continent and have thus far adhered.” That’s McPhee describing the literal “assembling” of California: geological time. A sudden shift in perspective and it’s 1848, with McPhee retelling the story of John Sutter and the Gold Rush with a freshness that makes it new: history. In the present, McPhee is guided by geologist Eldridge Moores, who perceives eons of change in a landscape the way a city-dweller might recognize signs of change in a neighborhood. Finally, in recounting the Loma Prieta quake that devastated the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, McPhee shows geological time and present time intersecting for a few terrifying seconds—with enormous consequences.
In a recent PUBLISHERS WEEKLY interview, Alec Wilkinson commented on the lameness of the “nonfiction” label for the work of writers such as McPhee and Joseph Mitchell (and Wilkinson himself). Whatever it is called, the writing in ASSEMBLING CALIFORNIA and the preceding volumes in ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD is as good and as likely to last as any writing of our time.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIX, December 1, 1992, p.633.
The Christian Science Monitor. March 3, 1993, p.13.
Kirkus Reviews. LX, December 1, 1992, p.1485.
Library Journal. CXVIII, January, 1993, p.162.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 13, 1993, p.1.
New Scientist. CXXXIX, July 24, 1993, p. 37.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 7, 1993, p.9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, January 4, 1993, p.67.
Time. CXLI, April 5, 1993, p.62.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 7, 1993, p.5.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2147
Assembling California is the final book in John McPhee’s geological tetralogy, Annals of the Former World. “Assembling” refers coyly to the two-decade-old theory of plate tectonics, which the three preceding books (Basin and Range, 1980; In Suspect Terrain, 1982; and Rising from the Plains, 1986) explained for those readers who survived the exposure to thick geological nomenclature. Tectonic geologists have embraced McPhee as one of their own, given his immersion in the topic and skill at discussing it. He dedicates Assembling California to Kenneth Deffeyes, the geologist who accompanied him to the Western states to look at road cuts, the freeway builder’s gift to students of rocks. But when McPhee entered California near Tahoe with the ever-prescient Deffeyes, the geologist was stumped by rock he did not recognize, and referred the author to his California alter ego, Eldridge Moores. Assembling California is the fruit of trips with Moores over several years during the 1980’s.
Geology is not humanities or anthropology, as the time charts on the book’s endpapers make clear. The most recent geological era is the Cenozoic, which traces time back a mere 65 million years. The three preceding eras begin with Precambrian time, which originates in the Hadean Eon, dated at 4,600 million years before the present. In that four-era-long wealth of time, plate tectonicists assert, the earth has been in a constant state of topographical rearrangement, such that supercontinents have more than once...
(The entire section contains 2485 words.)
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