Episode 38: The Wisdom of John McPhee

Spung-Man

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The July 08, 2016 New Yorker Radio Hour featured an episode called "The Wisdom of John McPhee" where the author reflects on a lifetime of writing. Here's a link to that podcast:


McPhee's book The Pine Barrens is credited as the inspiration for the Pinelands National Reserve, although I think there are two other equally important catalysts. First, there was botanist Jack McCormick's work – an internal study for the National Park Service titled A Study of Significance of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, later published by the New Jersey State Museum as The Pine Barrens: A Preliminary Ecological Inventory. Second, the advent of the wide-body jet, the 747, which allowed existing regional airports to accommodate the expanding demand for more passengers without the need for additional narrow-body aircraft.

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bobpbx

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Anybody have any suggestions for another McPhee book? I read Uncommon Carriers and it was good but not, in my opinion, as good as The Pine Barrens.

I read the one he wrote on Alaska 2 months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it (Coming into the Country). He goes to live in a very remote village and talks about all the characters. Very funny and insightful as it's all true.
 

Bill Sprouse

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Anybody have any suggestions for another McPhee book? I read Uncommon Carriers and it was good but not, in my opinion, as good as The Pine Barrens.

I'm a lapsed McPheeite, so it's been a few years, but I remember loving the books on geology. They're sold separately---Rising from the Plains, Basin and Range etc.--and together in cinder-block form as The Annals of the Former World. Maybe if you're reading on a Kindle book-girth is less a concern. Also, I wonder what the actual geologists think of those books.

Oranges I think of as the early exemplar of the McPhee ideal, 40,000 words on something everyone has in his/her refrigerator. A Sense of Where You Are is a hagiography of Bill Bradley as Princeton basketball celebrity. The Founding Fish has some nice stuff on New Jersey and clues on where to stalk McPhee, should you be so inclined, while he's fishing on the Delaware River.

There are also the collections of New Yorker pieces--Roomful of Hovings I read and reread. They were written in the 60s, and haven't necessarily aged well, as journalism--the Sudan piece springs to mind--but they're fun anyway.
 
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Spung-Man

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Also, I wonder what the actual geologists think of those books.

Howdy Bill,

Great to hear from you! Jerseyman, Lost Town Hunter, and I participated in a McPhee Pine Barrens retrospect a couple years back. With the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, he was surprisingly good on Pinelands geology details.



Of course my favorite citation is,“The Pine Barrens were then a cold desert of permafrost and tundra” (McPhee 1968: 121), which early on I found inspiration in. That statement was counter to much of the conventional wisdom of the time. Now a polar desertlike interpretation has become widely accepted with the advent of new geophysical techniques.

S-M
 
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