The Mind of John McPhee

“Well,” he said. “The machine will be telling you what to do.”

As soon as we said goodbye, I checked McPhee’s facts. The incline railway was, indeed, designed by the Otis Elevator Company, with an average incline of 65 percent — in its heyday, it was one of the steepest railways of its kind on earth. These were things I had not known about a structure that is visible from my house, that I look at every day of my life.

Photo

John McPhee with his daughters Jenny, left, and Martha in Ontario in the 1970s.

Credit
Photograph from John McPhee

McPhee has built a career on such small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook. Literature has always sought transcendence in purportedly trivial subjects — “a world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it — but few have ever pushed the impulse further than McPhee. He once wrote an entire book about oranges, called, simply, “Oranges” — the literary cousin of Duchamp’s urinal mounted in an art museum. In 1999, McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his 700-page geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which explains for the general reader how all of North America came to exist. (“At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire.”) He has now published 30 books, all of which are still in print — a series of idiosyncratic tributes to the world that, in aggregate, form a world unto themselves.

McPhee describes himself as “shy to the point of dread.” He is allergic to publicity. Not one of his book jackets has ever carried an author photo. He got word that he won the Pulitzer while he was in the middle of teaching a class, during a break, and he returned and taught the whole second half without mentioning it to his students — they learned about it only afterward, when the hall outside was crowded with photographers, reporters and people waiting to congratulate him. For McPhee’s 80th birthday, friends, family and colleagues arranged a big tribute to his life and work. But McPhee found out about the plan shortly beforehand and squashed it by refusing to go. Bill…

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