Beginning in 1978, John McPhee began a series of journeys across the United States along the length of I-80. His goal was to form a picture of how the geology of the country evolved over time. This project proved to be so large that he ended up breaking it into chunks, publishing four books that he finally combined into one (with an extra section). Basin and Range is the first book of Annals of the Former World, the combined volume, for which McPhee won the Pulitzer. Although I am reading the large volume, I have decided to break up my review by the original works, as reading this book has involved a lot of concentration.
Although the book begins with the genesis of the idea during an outing McPhee took with a geologist in New Jersey and briefly covers other areas of the world, Basin and Range concentrates on the Basin and Range area of western Utah and eastern Nevada. McPhee is a journalist who majored in English, but his interests lead him to take courses in geology, among other sciences. To supplement his basic knowledge and interests, he traveled with and interviewed noted geologists.
Basin and Range discusses changes in basic geological theory from the 17th century, providing readers with a primer on plate tectonics by using examples of various structures in the Basin and Range. In the course of these discussions, McPhee expatiates on some of the larger debates in the history of the science and tells us about some of the more colorful characters. All the while, he conveys his fascination with geology and his appreciation of language. He finds inventive ways of suggesting the vastness of the time he is discussing and the relative rapidity with which major geological forces can create change.
I have an interest in geology that is only basically informed, mostly from a couple of classes, science TV programs, and a former job in a related industry. I always considered myself a dunce at science and so never followed up this interest seriously. McPhee throws around geology terms without always explaining them, so I found myself looking up terms like “oolite” and “craton,” but in general he is gifted with the ability to make this topic abundantly clear. Although I was not sure at the beginning of the book that I would read all the parts, I am certainly planning on continuing. I am finding it fascinating to try to imagine the changes in the Earth that he describes.