John McPhee is my favorite non-fiction writer. He writes rich straightforward prose, has a sense of humor, and is able to take all kinds of subjects (list of books here) and make them not only interesting but illuminating. He is from Princeton and he still lives there, and my mom has threatened on several occasions to plant herself on a bench on Nassau Street with a picture of him and flag him down when he walks by.
He is old school, in the best sense of the term. He has an elaborate writing process that involves index cards and his office floor, but he writes consistently and voluminously. His pieces are excerpted in The New Yorker, and then they are published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, and then they are read by what I imagine are his legion of loyal fans, including me. This is the way it has gone since the 60’s, and it is how it goes today. His last book was published in 2006, so it is time – he owes us one.
Right now, however, I am slogging through “Assembling California” (1993). Despite the diversity of his interests, geology seems to be his true love – he’s written several books on the subject. The excerpts I’ve read in his collections have been delightful, but this one is tough to get through.
Sample sentence: “This continuous belt of ophiolites consists of ocean crust that formed at a spreading center late in the Cretaceous and was emplaced on the northern margin of India in Paleocene time.”
Well ok then. In theory this book is great – I like geology, I like California, and I like Mr. McPhee. And I do get a thrill when he writes about San Francisco: “Not just any city can claim to have formed in a trench where the slab of a great ocean dived toward the center of the earth, where large pieces of vari-colored country came together, and where competent rock was crushed to scaly clay.”
It is really something when a writer can make you proud of your city’s competent (!) rock and scaly clay. And you have to realize what it means to me that this guy is from NEW JERSEY, my home state. And he has chosen the perfect discipline – he finds something interesting, he goes out to research it (travels the country with truckers and bargemen , lives with doctors in the Maine woods, goes to Alaska when it is a new baby state), and then he comes home to Princeton to write it all up. What a life!
I just love him. I really do. And I will finish “Assembling California”, though I will only remember the occasional juicy anecdote (as opposed to the pages upon pages of plate tectonic theory). I will tell those anecdotes at cocktail parties, as I already do with all of his other stories, and I will get excited and wave my hands around and tell even more people to read him.
So do it. Read him. Start with one of the John McPhee Readers, or “Coming Into the Country”. Do it, and you will be glad.