The Essential John McPhee
Ever hear of some new book by a famous writer who you’ve been meaning to read for years? Well, today, The Daily Beast launches a new series, Remedial Reader, to highlight the books you must read of famous fiction and nonfiction writers.
From the remote forests of Alaska to the orange groves of Florida, John McPhee has written about an astonishing range of subjects in nearly 30 books. One of the stalwarts of The New Yorker and a longtime writing teacher at Princeton, McPhee’s essays and books have encompassed, among other things, his old headmaster from Deerfield ( The Headmaster), the last bark canoes ( The Survival of the Bark Canoe), the citizen-soldiers of Switzerland ( La Place de la Concorde Suisse), a militant conservationist ( Encounters with the Archdruid), and hitching a ride with a long-distance trucker ( Uncommon Carriers). Each is filled with impeccable sentences, mesmerizing descriptions of the natural world, and portraits of characters who are passionate about their subject and who carry McPhee—and he us—into their world.
His latest, Silk Parachute, is but the latest example of his elegant writing, merciless curiosity, and ability to explain complicated subjects to the layperson—or, at least, The New Yorker reader. With its more personal subjects, from summer camp memories to his life list of weird foods consumed, McPhee’s latest is well worth our attention. But for readers wondering where exactly to start in his vast and varied oeuvre The Daily Beast suggests three books to start with.
McPhee's first book was more like a long profile. With a deft touch and a sensitive eye, he paints the portrait of a young Bill Bradley, Princeton basketball star and brilliant student, long before his legendary career with the New York Knicks or his service in the Senate. Because Bradley spoke so intelligently about the game, McPhee was able to load the book with basketball insight without succumbing to cliche—you certainly won't find anything about "giving 110 percent" or "taking it one game at a time." It was an early sign of future success for both subject and author.
The Magnum Opus
Imagine this: a 600-plus page book on plate tectonics. Most readers might be scared away immediately, but give this one time. First published in 1998, it is a collection of four separate books written over the preceeding 20 years and covering nothing less than the geological history of North America. This truly is McPhee’s greatest and most ambitious work. Filled with fascinating characters (like Anita Harris from the U.S. Geological Survey) and pellucid explanations of the Precambrian and Cambrian, McPhee’s book is one to get lost in until the mountains, rivers, and contours of the country begin to take on new meaning.
Well, we’re going to cheat a bit here, because there are two books, A Roomful of Hovings and Giving Good Weight, that are both collections of pieces centered not around the natural world but on great personalities. Why both? It wouldn’t be fair to any reader to miss McPhee’s gently probing profile of the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art director, Thomas Hoving, or his exploration of the pinball wizardry of journalist J. Anthony Lukas, or his account of Robert Twynam, keeper of the lawn at Wimbledon. These are the types of characters that only McPhee can capture in their noble and sometimes eccentric pursuits.
Lucas Wittmann is the Books Editor at The Daily Beast.