Basin and Range

I read John McPhee’s Basin and Range, and really liked it. He’s just a ridiculously great writer. Big chunks of the book tie in with a road trip he takes with a geologist named Deffeyes. They stop a lot and look at rocks.

Deffeyes said, “Let’s Richter the situation,” and he got out and crossed the road. With his hammer, he chipped at the rock, puzzled the cut. He scraped the rock and dropped acid on the scrapings. Tilted by the western breeze, the snow was dipping sixty degrees east. The bedding planes were dipping twenty degrees east; and the stripes of Deffeyes’ knitted cap were dipping fifty degrees north. The cap had a big tassel, and with his gray-wisped hair coming out from under in a curly mélange he looked like an exaggerated efl. He said he thought he knew what had cause “that big goober” in the rock, and it was almost certainly not a manifestation of some major tectonic event – merely local violence, a cashier shot in a grab raid, an item for an inside page.

There’s a lot of neat historical parallels, like how geology’s growing understanding of deep time put humanity in our place, just like over in biology, natural selection was having a similar effect. It’s 300 pages about rocks, y’all. This is one book of a four-part series collected in Annals of the Former World and I’m very, very tempted.

Filed under: John McPhee.


Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.

Filed under: John McPhee.


A Fleet of One: Eighty thousand pounds of Dangerous Goods – The New Yorker

The most beautiful truck on earth—Don Ainsworth’s present sapphire-drawn convexing elongate stainless mirror—gets a smidgen over six miles to the gallon.

In a nice moment of literary convergence, I finished this awesome essay by John McPhee while taking a break from the photography book Truckers. Creative Loafing did a nice interview with writer Mary Richardson. It’s a whole different world.

A Fleet of One: Eighty thousand pounds of Dangerous Goods – The New Yorker

Paris Review – The Art of Nonfiction No. 3, John McPhee

Great interview. McPhee says gathering facts and writing nonfiction (as opposed to more self-generated fiction stuff) is like going from the grocery store to the kitchen:

I always say to my classes that it’s analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out. […]

Once I’ve written the lead, I read the notes and then I read them again. I read them until they’re coming out my ears. Ideas occur, but what I’m doing, basically, is looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code—it’s like an airport code. If a topic is upstate New York, I’ll write UNY or something in the margin. When I get done, the mass of notes has some tiny code beside each note. And I write each code on an index card.

That’s laying it all out where he can look at it. It’s a technique he got from his high school writing teacher. One cool thing he found is that when you get the structure set, you can let the juxtapositions do some storytelling for you. In Encounters with the Archdruid, for example:

The whole book had thirty-six components. What I ended up with was thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with a code word. Some of these things are absolutely dictated by the story of the journey down the Colorado River. But the choices are interesting where it’s not dictated, like the facts of David Brower’s life.

I knew where I was going to start, but I didn’t know the body of the thing. I went into a seminar room here at the university, and I laid the thirty-six cards out on the table. I just looked and looked at them. After a while I was looking at two cards: Upset Rapid, which is a big-time rapid in the Colorado River, and Alpinist. In Upset Rapid, Brower doesn’t ride the rapid. Why doesn’t he ride the rapid? His answer to Floyd Dominy is, “Because I’m chicken.” That’s a pretty strong scene. What next? Well, there are more than seventy peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower, hanging by his fingernails on some cliff. “Because I’m chicken”? This juxtaposition is just loaded with irony, and by putting the Alpinist right after Upset Rapid, in the white space between those two sections there’s a hell of a lot of stuff that I don’t have to say. It’s told by the structure. It’s all crackling along between those two things. So I put those two cards side by side. Now there are thirty-four other parts there on the table.

Paris Review – The Art of Nonfiction No. 3, John McPhee

If you are feeling nervous, nervous is good. All right? It makes us stop thinking about things. It makes us ready to play. If you’re nervous, that’s fine. Feel nervous.

Lacrosse coach Trevor Tierney quoted in John McPhee’s “Pioneer”. I like the “stop thinking about things” part–I’ve never been distracted while nervous. Nerves and focus go hand in hand.