John McPhee
September 30, 2009 10:37 AM   Subscribe

John McPhee writes about basketball, headmasters, oranges, tennis, hybrid airships, nuclear weapons, bark canoes, Alaska, the Swiss Army, the merchant marines, dissident Soviet artists, shad, long-distance trucking, and - Pulitzer Prize-winningly - geology (282kb PDF). He discusses his work here.

Previously in the blue: his writings on the Army Corps of Engineers' history of attempts to control the Mississippi River and the aftermath of Los Angeles area wildfires.
posted by Joe Beese (32 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I heart him. Thanks for this collection. The first comment on the youtube clip rings true: "He's my favorite!! The man could write about snow melting and make it interesting!!"
posted by rmless at 10:39 AM on September 30, 2009

One of my all-time favorites. Thanks!
posted by VicNebulous at 10:47 AM on September 30, 2009

John McPhee is a treasure - thank you for this!
posted by troika at 10:50 AM on September 30, 2009

Recently turned two family members onto McPhee. Thanks for this.
posted by mistersquid at 10:58 AM on September 30, 2009

He's great. The Control of Nature is one of my favorites. Floods, molten lava and mudslides with house-crushing boulders. Everything you need in one convenient volume.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:58 AM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ok, I will be the fly in the ointment. I don't like John McPhee. I have tried. I started Basin and Range, The Control of Nature, and Coming into Country -- all books about subjects in which I have an interest and which McPhee certainly spent plenty of time researching. But I never got into his books. I was always uneasy that the books didn't seem to be "going anywhere." Like I wasn't clear what the point of the first few chapters was and I lost interest. I should say that I'm not generally preoccupied with narrative arcs and the like. Nothing much happens in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek but I loved Annie Dillard's writing and I kept reading just for the pleasure of it. McPhee just doesn't do it for me.
posted by stinker at 11:02 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stinker, your post may be eponstyrical.
posted by theora55 at 11:17 AM on September 30, 2009

Different strokes for different folks I guess, but number me amongst those who could read just about any subject as told by JM. Thanks for the post.
My sorrow is merely that Annals of the Former World is so entertaining that i wish there were such a work for every interesting geological place.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:19 AM on September 30, 2009

I love McPhee, Coming Into Country and the birchbark canoe book are two of my favorites, thanks
for this.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:41 AM on September 30, 2009

I ♥ John McPhee.
posted by ericb at 12:13 PM on September 30, 2009

Read many of those in the New Yorker over the years. That's what it used to be good for. But then, to quote Tina Brown after she took over at the magazine: "How many people want to read 30,000 words about zinc?" Siiiigh!
posted by carping demon at 12:19 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am fourteen, going on a rafting trip with my much older brother and his friends. They run out for "supplies" and are gone for, like, six hours. I find the John McPhee Reader and fall deeply, madly in love. A state that has lasted nearly 30 years.

For those of you who have not yet read him, do. His latest stuff has not been as fantastic as the early stuff, but I cannot think of a writer who can say so much in so few words. I recommend Oranges, a 150 page page-turner about nothing but oranges.

Thanks for this, I think I'll go home and pull out The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed - haven't read that one in a while.
posted by qldaddy at 12:27 PM on September 30, 2009

He's the Diderot of our age.
posted by Haruspex at 12:36 PM on September 30, 2009

I find him in equal parts maddening and fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the fact checking article that he wrote in the February 9 issue of the New Yorker this year. I'd link to it, but you need a subscription.
posted by msali at 12:37 PM on September 30, 2009

My grandfather gave me his essay on rural family medical practitioners when I was in college and trying to determine a course of action for my life more stimulating than engineering. The essay, "Heirs Of General Practice", struck a chord in me in how it showed the way you could develop a skill that would offer something useful anywhere in the world, which appealed to me a lot then. If I had been pre-med, I would have likely already determined that I wanted nothing to do with the profession after spending three years in a pressure-cooker with other anxious and driven perfectionists.

During residency, at times living alone in substandard housing in rural backwaters in desolate parts of Virginia while training, reading McPhee was like having a comforting Uncle in the room to talk with. His voice on the written page is something unique and forever after when I read an essay of his I feel like it's almost possible to imagine him there in the room.

He is a treasure.
posted by docpops at 12:39 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I need to read more John McPhee. I got Control of Nature after reading the aforementioned MeFi thread, loved it, and then passed it along to my ex-Army Corps of Engineers father, who also loved it.
posted by thewittyname at 12:43 PM on September 30, 2009

If you want one that goes somewhere, stinker, "The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed" is the one to try.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:06 PM on September 30, 2009

McPhee loves to have long lists of stuff in his books. Like one sentences that's half a page listing stuff that he researched. Does anyone even read those?
posted by smackfu at 1:23 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed "Common Carriers" though. Especially the UPS part. The one about shad fishing was a bit too much on shad fishing for me.
posted by smackfu at 1:41 PM on September 30, 2009

Yeah, I'm with stinker. He's obviously a very talented writer, but all his stories somehow end up being less than the sum of their parts. These days when I see his byline in the New Yorker, I just skip it.
posted by Rangeboy at 1:45 PM on September 30, 2009

I read Annals of the Former World in one sleepness night when I was in the hospital. My grandfather brought a copy to me, providing for my entertainment in the manner of his generation. I was taken in by it completely, and when I finished it around 10 the next morning, fell asleep almost instantly.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 1:50 PM on September 30, 2009

For 20+ years Coming Into the Country has been sitting on the bookshelf unloved and unread, I picked it up again 2 weeks ago and fell in love again. What ever happened to those people in Eagle, I'd love to know? Anyone been there recently? Oh wait a minute, this isn't 1988 , this is now and there is bad news from Eagle. One question that can't be answered, however, is what ever happened to "My name is Riverwind?"
posted by Xurando at 1:51 PM on September 30, 2009

While I drove across Louisiana some 20 years ago, my wife read from The Control of Nature, concerning the vital, and doomed, task of making the Lower Mississippi River behave. We crossed the Atchafalaya River basin, the Mississippi at Baton Rouge, and drove down into New Orleans. All along the trip we could see the natural and man made features, and attempted to understand the forces that McPhee described. After Katrina, I revisited that book, and understood once again how New Orleans cannot be protected, but must be.

One passage concerned the effects of flood waters on the Old River Control Structure. Here McPhee describes the drilling of a test hole into the center of the structure, lowering a camera, and discovering water and fish where it had previously been solid. The structure was "this close" to failure, which could have diverted the entire flow of the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya. It was a scene that raised goose bumps.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 2:02 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

McPhee is my model for prose writing. Clear, informed, and with a distinct voice that never (well, OK, rarely) gets in the way of the work. I always come away from his books and articles feeling informed, enriched, and exhilarated. Love his stuff. Love. It.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:18 PM on September 30, 2009

> I love McPhee, Coming Into Country and the birchbark canoe book are two of my favorites

"Henri's expertise stops in the yard; out here he is as green as his jerky."

McPhee is an all-reading-lifetime favorite. JMcP vs. Tracy Kidder would be better than Alien vs. Predator. And indeed he did make me read an entire book about oranges.

OTOH, I bogged down without finishing all three of the big fat volumes about geology. The length of one of those long New Yorker reporting pieces (not continued next issue) is the right length for him.
posted by jfuller at 5:10 PM on September 30, 2009

My personal favorites [Some mentioned in the FPP hyperlinks]:
The Headmaster.

A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles.

Levels of the Game.

The Crofter and the Laird.

La Place de la Concorde Suisse.
posted by ericb at 9:25 PM on September 30, 2009

'The Curve of Binding Energy' and 'Encounters With The Archdruid' put the novelisticness of a very large number of novels to shame.


(a '.' doesn't have to mean he died, does it?)
posted by Darth Fedor at 9:28 PM on September 30, 2009

JMcP vs. Tracy Kidder would be better than Alien vs. Predator.

Point of interest: MeFi's very own jessamyn's father, Tom West, is "the figure at the center of Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine." *
posted by ericb at 9:33 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nice subject, Joe B., for a post. McPhee is 30 years past his prime (he is, after all, almost 80), and his geology books never interested me (although collected together they won the Pulitzer Prize). Especially in the 1970s, though, he was by far the best at what he did. Oranges, Encounters with the Archdruid, and The Curve of Binding Energy (the latter two nominated for National Book Awards) are my three favorites of his 24 books that I've read. Also, from all accounts I've seen, and from people I know who are friends of his, McPhee is a thoroughly decent human being as well as a superb writer.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:37 PM on September 30, 2009

Love McPhee. Thanks for the reminder. I'm so eager to pick up Annals again that I don't think I'll have the patience to finish this po
posted by buzzv at 9:53 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

His book "The Pine Barrens" helped me fall in love with my little corner of Southern New Jersey. After that, he continued to fascinate me with Oranges, and, most recently, Uncommon Carriers.

His style really connects with me. It has something to do with his style of finding a tiny little detail, and presenting it as though it's the most fascinating thing he has ever heard.
posted by pantsonfire at 7:37 AM on October 1, 2009

Long-time fan (probably from LeLiLo's influence- but I liked the geology books).
I was reading The Ransom Of Russian Art a few years back and, halfway through it, I realized they were talking about a place I had been. Dodge had taken the art to his farm in southern Maryland. A friend of mine was a colleague of Dodge and grew grapes on his plantation. I went down once or twice for picking & pressing. My friend was interviewed by McPhee for the story, and he described him as a dogged interviewer: "I'm glad I didn't have any secrets I was trying to keep from him!"
posted by MtDewd at 11:53 AM on October 6, 2009

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