maandag 27 augustus 2012

John McPhee: Dostoyevsky in the age of Discovery Channel


Annals of the Former World (1989) brings together John McPhee's four previous book on US geology with a new closing essay and the sum surpasses its parts. Geology is a descriptive science and McPhee's book is above all a kind of dictionary fieldwork in the depths, shales and dispositions of a technical language. It's a Dostoyevskian book because you have to live with it for weeks. Not because it is that big (it's less than 700 pages of medium typeset, not the 1500 pages of fine print of The Brothers Karamazov) but because the abundant descriptions of rock and outcrops are the reading equivalent to a 7+ grade boulder climb. The second thing that is at the heart of McPhee's geological project is his sly but constant coupling of geological and human time frames. This book deals with geology but its subject, in the last analysis, is the human condition. Annals of the Former World is the great non-fiction competitor to all the great American novels. It's view of America in geological time is itself a critique on the basic assumptions of, say, the religious right and all other short sighted voices. And it has great maps to boot.

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