Thirty years ago, the theory that continents are comprised of drifting plates—plate tectonics—evoked more scorn than serious research. Today, this revolutionary theory continues to dazzle and challenge geologists and laymen alike. Assembling California explores an area uniquely demonstrative of the plate tectonic theory: California, which according to “tectonicists,” is breaking apart at its seams.
©1993 John McPhee (P)1993 Recorded Books, LLC
A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
This year I've been reading the separate segments of McPhee's Pulitzer Prize winning 1998 opus Annals of the Former World, but skipped (for now) Rising from the Plains because I was going to be driving with my brother from San Francisco to Mesa, AZ. We were going to hang in Berkeley and hit Yosemite, Sequoia, etc., on our trip South and East and I figured it was a perfect time to read 'Assembling California'.
Like all McPhee writing, 'Assembling California 'is an amazing conglomeration of good writing, great characters, and interesting technical facts. However, unlike the earlier books in this series ( Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain) it just doesn't set up as nicely. I'm not sure if it had more to do with the messiness of California's geology, the limits of Eldridge Moores as an engaging character, or if McPhee had just grown a bit tired of his own Great I-80 Geology Project. He is engaging, but there just wasn't as much sparkle or heat as with earlier books with Karen Kleinspehn, Kenneth Deffeyes, or Anita Harris. A solid McPhee and a good addition to the series, just not the strongest piece. I hope that 'Rising from the Plains' works out a bit better.
I love the way McPhee writes: who else would describe a beard as "tetragrammatonic"? But for me picking up on those kinds of literary allusions is a lot easier than trying to understand geology, and this book sometimes seems just too delighted in the swirl of geologic terms to make sense of. Since listening to this, I've looked at a paper copy, and that made it easier to keep the story sorted in my mind, but I have never studied geology, and while listening I found I was often rewinding and relistening and sometimes still not understanding what was going on.
At the same time, I really enjoyed this book. The narration is pleasant. And the organizing ideas of the book work really well. McPhee organizes the book around a series of roadtrips in California, and brings up geological topics as they relate to places you can visit, especially if you live in the Bay Area or the Central Valley. The thing I like best about this book is how most of the geological information arises out of dialogues with the pioneering geologist Eldridge Moores. Moores makes a great character to organize the story around.
Bottom line: as a piece of writing this is great. As a way to learn about geology, it's hard.
McPhee's focus is the formation of California, but the scope of Assembling California is nothing less than the formation of all the continents, islands and oceans as understood by modern geology.
Just as quantum mechanics and relativity transformed Physics, just as the concept of brain plasticity transformed Neuroscience, just so the theory of plate tectonics transformed Geology. John McPhee explains the transformation of the science, and the transformation of the Earth's surface in fine prose. He quotes dialogs with geologists--mainly Eldridge Moores--gives analogies, and uses anecdotes drawn from personal experience to convey the concepts.
Assembling California works fine on the printed page, but has a few too many technical terms to work entirely well as an audio book.
Nevertheless, this is a well-written and well-read book that conveys the outline of modern tectonic geology to the layman.
The missing piece of the Annals of the Former World series finally appears on Audible. I can???t recommend this series highly enough.
If you've read the the rest of the Annals of the Former World, you will no doubt get this book. I enjoyed it, but the mix of history and geology in this one is a lot clumsier than it is in the other books. The book is most similar to Rising from the Plains, in that it seems to contain more anecdotal history than geology. The difference is that McPhee doesn't fuse the anecdotes and the science seamlessly like he does in most of the other installments. If you're new to the series, I'd recommend starting with Basin and Range.
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