John McPhee is a genius—nominally of literature, but seemingly of every other field he comes in contact with. He writes about Alaskan wilderness, about oranges, about lifting bodies (yes, those are apparently a thing), about basketball, and about dozens of other topics. None of his works are cursory surveys of the field; he dives into every new subject with an expert’s enthusiasm and a man of literature’s grace. Annals of the Former World is no different, and provides a beautiful 700 pages of stunning geology.
If you’ve never found geology fascinating, this is the book for you: this is more the story of how science comes into being; it’s about how new knowledge is created / discovered / co-constructed (choose a verb, depending on your own epistemological stance). The entire volume is made up of five book-length essays that each focus on the geology and the geologists of different parts of the US’s I-80 corridor. The geology itself provides only the skeleton of this story; the flesh is made up of the scientists who brought geology as a field to where it was as each sub-book was published (1981, 1983, 1986, 1993, and 1998).
A German professor of mine is an ardent fan of McPhee’s and knew that I hailed from the northwest corner of Wyoming, so he sent me in search of Rising from the Plains, the third essay of the set which focuses on Dr. David Love and Wyoming. I devoured this rock-bottom account of Wyoming (see what I did there?) a few years ago, falling in love with McPhee’s careful construction of his house of words and his easy style in fleshing out the rooms (so many metaphors!).
Since I work in the summers at a peaceful visitor center that boasts a rather full library, including Annals of the Former World, I have spent my quiet hours at the desk poring through the rest of this book. Do not ask me to quote the intricacies of geology that McPhee has laid bare, because although this is a literary work, it certainly does not present a watered-down version of its subject, and a lot of it was much more complex and detailed than I have room in my brain for. Here is geology in all its human layers, and here is a master who knows how to weave it into a story.
9 out of 10.