If you read the New Yorker with any regularity–or even just a couple of times a year–you’ve probably read one of John McPhee’s articles. If you’re like me–with a wide range of interests, endless fascination with any damn thing, and a total sucker for a well-constructed narrative–then you’ve probably read most of John McPhee’s books and buy new ones as they come out.
McPhee has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1965 and has published, at last count, 31 books. His writing is lively, personal, highly readable (whatever that means) while also being immaculately structured and deftly crafted. The subjects of his books range widely, and include geology, farmer’s markets, the merchant marine, wilderness living in Alaska, Mississippi River infrastructure, freight transportation, basketball, oranges, lacrosse, traditional bark canoes, oranges, and shad. One always learns something new when reading McPhee. Always.
McPhee represents the best of journalism, the best of storytelling, and the best of the craft of writing.
Henri Vaillancourt makes birch-bark canoes with the same tools and methods that the Native Americans used. He travels through the woods of New Hampshire and Maine searching for the materials of his craft–cedar, hardwood, and birch bark–which he then meticulously and carefully builds into beautiful and practical craft made entirely of natural materials. McPhee intertwines the description of how Vaillancourt builds his canoes with the story of a 150-mile trip through the Maine wilderness with Vaillancourt in those very same canoes, and the history of bark canoes generally.
Coming into the Country is a story of Alaska, Alaskans, and living in Alaska, whether that means traveling in the wilderness, living in the bush, or living in one of Alaska’s cities and towns. McPhee weaves the stories of many different Alaskans and the way that they live together by overlaying a series of episodes that shift back and forth between multiple story lines. And while that might sound confusing or disorganized, McPhee’s orchestration melds them into an organic whole.
Giving Good Weight is the title of the lead story in this collection of five essays, which is the story of farmers selling their produce at the New York City Greenmarket. This collection also includes “The Atlantic Generating Station,” about a plan for the construction of floating nuclear power plants; “The Pinball Philosophy,” about a shoot-out between two pinball masters; “The Keel of Lake Dickey,” about a journey down a whitewater river endangered by a projected dam; and, “Brigade de Cuisine,” about a willfully anonymous, artistic, master chef who wants to cook wonderful things without becoming famous. The last essay is particularly interesting in light of the modern foodie culture of boutique restaurants, celebrity chefs, and other nonsense (even if chef “Otto” and his pastry chef wife “Anne” have almost certainly been outed).
The Control of Nature is McPhee’s account of how people–and engineers in particular–battle nature with technology on a grand scale, whether it be the works of the Army Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River, the attempt to save a harbor from flowing lava in Iceland, or building catchment basins in Los Angeles to catch debris flows from the San Gabriel Mountains.
In Looking for a Ship, McPhee joins a merchant mariner named Andy Chase in his search for a ship. Chase holds a license as a second mate, but is having a hard time finding a job. It’s the story of a shrinking merchant marine. It’s also the story of a voyage because Chase finds a ship, and McPhee goes along for the ride, during which, in the fine tradition of sailor’s yarns, we hear a great many other stories of other ships, other voyages, and other sailors.
Annals of the Former World is actually five books–Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, Assembling California, and Crossing the Craton–about the geology of a cross-section of North America at the fortieth parallel. It’s both a primer of North American geology, the stories of the geologists with whom McPhee travels, and a meditation on geologic time. Magisterial doesn’t even begin to describe this book.
This is a book about the American Shad. It’s a combination of natural history, American history (the shad was a significant food fish in 17th and 18th century America), and the personal history of an obsessive catch-and-eat shad fisherman–and McPhee is certainly that. He gives us a bit of ichthyology, directions for making shad lures, and more than a couple recipes for the delectable preparation of the catch, as well as the place of shad in the making of the country. Because the American Shad is a fish of Atlantic rivers, it will come as something of a revelation to fishers from other parts of the country, as it was to me.
Uncommon Carriers is a pastiche of McPhee’s journeys with the people who carry our freight and the ways that they do it. He rides with trucker driving a chemical tanker hauling hazardous materials, ships on a barge-two on the Illinois River, attends a ship-handling school on a French pond, takes canoe trip through some northeastern canals, and rides a really, really long train. I credit this book with the freight geekery that helped land me my current job.
The Silk Parachute is McPhee’s latest collection of essays, published in 2010. It’s as wide-ranging and as well crafted as we’ve come to expect, but it’s also one of the most personal. Some of his children and grandchildren make appearances, and one piece is entirely about his photographer daughter Laura McPhee and her collaborative work with another photographer. But it’s the piece on lacrosse in America, published in the New Yorker in 2009, that’s the true centerpiece of this volume. Read it and find out what those kids are doing back behind the school with those funny looking sticks.