John Mcphee writes for the New Yorker. His residence is in Princeton, New Jersey.
John Mcphee has twenty books that I know of; plus a number of essays. According to
the “Modern American Prose” his dealing with detail is almost obsessive, they compared
him to an artist that would paint a photo perfect painting. His wanting to being right and
all knowing about the subject at hand has led him to actual people that have an expertise
rather then books about what he wants to know.
McPhee looks at things with a wide angle lens; he looks for the big picture. In the
beginning of “Basin and Range”, he talks about how our current mapping system is a
temporary system. He says our current system describes things “ for a boat on the sea.” [Basin and Range pg3] I gather he is talking about how the Earth’s tectonic plates
are moving. When describing the girl in this piece he starts of with her racial background,
as if that is the first thing somebody would notice. But then I relized that it really leaves
an image in your head, it really leaves an image in your head; it is a good way to describe
someone no one has seen before; nearly everyone has a stereotypical look for each of the
racial backgrounds.
Mcphee has the girl talk to no one directly, and does things a character would
normally do with another person there i.e. “She points to the flow patterns, to swirls in the
diabase where...sediments, in bends.”[Basin and Range pg6] At first this seems confusing,
I found myself wondering where or not I missed a section where it described someone
walking with her. The I relized that he must have done it to make it seem as though the
reader was there next to her. This is very good technique that I have never seen used
except in plays. By placing the reader in the scene it draws you away from the “boring”
non-fiction, and creates a new experience.
He describes her walking alone the sill as if he watched do it, this amount of
detail puts an actual picture perfect image in the readers head. He goes in to elaborate
detail bout the texture and the way the it looks; and details why it is the way it is. The
language he uses is sophisticated, yet understandable to anyone with common knowledge
of rocks and earth. After all the details he redraws your attention by having the girl talk
again; pulling you back away from the bogging detail.
Mcphee gets away from the “boring” facts of the material at hand, and gives the
reader a break; this is done by describing the litter left along the highway, this isn’t totally
off the subject; when I was talking about him seeing the big picture and all that, I get the
feeling he is doing that here again. He says that fossils are created by things getting
covered in drying mud, then are trapped for thousands up on thousands of years. “...a
huge rubber sandal...crate of broken eggs, three golf balls,...” [Basin pg9]; poses a good
question about the future, are these the remains for other to find of us. Mcphee seemed to
drift off the subject, but not with out accomplishing something at the same time. This
refers back to when I was saying he sees thongs with a wide angle lens.
Mcphee most enjoyable style is that of creating images; he uses multiple
metaphors in his works to describe the way say a geologist would go after a road cut(a hill
that has been cut open for a road to pass through; this leaves behind exposed rocks to
study). His explanation of this is "A twenty dollar bill to a Hungary man," [Basin pg11] or
the relationship between the two "An X-ray to a dentist." [Basin pg11] A geologist
attention is grab "like missionaries racing anthropologists to a tribe just discovered up in
the Xingu." [Basin pg12] He description of a roadcut is "This interstate is like a knife
wound all across the country," [Basin pg13] his imagery here is so powerful that it just
lights up an image. My favorite one is when he describes the map that one of his
characters is reading as "...roads running every which way like shattered lines in glass..."
[Basin pg16] does a picture just pop into your head or what.
Mcphees has a great way of creating a total image; of everything