June 2003 Reads

February 13th, 2007

For those of us who don’t have the longest attention span, a compendium offers a welcome diversion. Collections of essays and book excerpts offer a diversity of subjects, and give you a sense of which books or subjects might be worth more investigation. Two of my favorite authors, John McPhee and David McCullough, both offer such books. From the history of the birch-bark canoe, to profiles of the very first airplane pilots, here are this month’s reads.

The John McPhee Reader, John McPhee

One of the best things about John McPhee’s writing is the diversity of his subjects. Since 1965 he has published 29 books on topics such as the history of the birch-bark canoe, the distinctive seclusion of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens region, and the geologic origins of the western U.S. Along the way, he has picked up several awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World, a very readable history of the geologic origins of the Western United States- all 4.6 billion years’ worth. McPhee is not a historian in the classical sense, yet for anyone wanting a very deep perspective on any of his chosen subjects, you would be hard-pressed to find more well-researched writing. In the John McPhee Reader, you are provided with chapter excerpts from his early books (1965-1976) including Encounters withMcPhee_Reader_cover.jpg the ArchDruid, a narrative of the author’s travels and discussions with three experts offering very different perspectives on the environmental crisis, and Coming into the Country, a rich account of the history and future of the Alaskan wilderness and its people. The selections are well-chosen by virtue of the fact that they can stand up reasonably on their own apart from the context of the corresponding volume. McPhee’s writing is of a journalistic nature; you get as objective and detailed a perspective on any given subject as you could hope for in a single book. But for me, what makes McPhee’s writing truly great is that he is able to convey his experiences and perspective in a style and perspective that virtually anyone can appreciate. This was the first McPhee book I ever read, and I have since read another dozen or so, with plans to collect and read them all.

Brave Companions, David McCullough

David McCullough is probably my favorite living historian, and the first exposure I had to his work was Brave Companions. This book is a collection of 17 short biographies of various historical figures- some well-known, others somewhat obscure to the average person. The common theme here is pioneering, whether it be of a physical, intellectual, technological, artistic, or spiritual nature. Some of the characters profiled include Alexander von Humboldt, whose scientific expeditions to South America at the turn of the 19th century eclipsed Lewis & Clark’s journeys in terms of physical challenge and scientific importance. Louis Agassiz, anotherBrave_Companions_cover.jpg subject, is known as the “Father of Glaciology,” and was the first scientist to realize that glaciers in fact moved, and formulate a theory that once a great Ice Age had once gripped the Earth; later he served as head of the Smithsonain Institute. Others profiled include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, and Frederic Remington. What I like about this book is that most of the characters are ones that I would probably never know too much about had I not picked up this book. And their stories are more than interesting- they are fascinating. The story of the earliest pilots made my palms sweat just reading about some of the flights they took- remember, their planes were primitive by today’s standards, and they were the first to ever try a “barrel-roll.” As the name of the book implies, this collection also tries to point out that these courageous pioneers did not accomplish theur feats alone. Humboldt was accompanied by a friend who was a botanist. Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Anne, accompanied him on many of his early flights, and Stowe’s husband played a crucial role in her success.

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