I’m tempted to say that passages like this one and many others in Annals of the Former World have had a lingering effect on me, but that does not quite describe the impact of the book. Many books haunt, but while I may have pondered the cruel fate of Tolstoy’s Madame Karenina, or felt the visceral despair of Saint Augustine, even after returning their stories to the shelf, no work has altered my perception of the world and our place in it more than McPhee’s geology tome. It caused a shift in conscience, an alteration in the currents of my thought that, even now, carve out fresh new channels for my perceptions to tumble down. Usually those kinds of seismic events are produced between the covers of religious or philosophical tracts or, perhaps, by a great novel. But geology? Over the years I’ve often attempted to explain the book’s tug on my psyche, but usually only receive looks of bemused indulgence. Such reactions have often made me wonder if Annals, like Finnegan’s Wake, is one of those books that many have on the shelf but few have actually read. I raised the question with David Remnick, McPhee’s editor at The New Yorker, of whether the book, despite having won a Pulitzer Prize, is sometimes overlooked by readers. ”I think it really is an underrated masterpiece,”said Remnick, a former student of McPhee’s at Princeton. ”It got made fun of a little bit as ‘that story about rocks.’ ”

Trying to explain the book’s power, I’ve clumsily equated its effect to a kind of personal Copernican revolution, one that stripped away lingering notions of childhood religion and permanently colored my perception of human history. The endorsement of Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the universe in the early seventeenth century, you might recall, caused Galileo to be placed under house arrest for life by the Vatican. After reading Annals, I better understood how unsettling a bit of heresy was Copernican astronomy, because it, like the book, moves mankind far, far, far from the center of the narrative of creation and existence. To illustrate how humankind stands in relation to the larger sweep of events, McPhee supplies the useful notion of ”animal time.”As creatures of animal time, human beings tend to walk around in a bubble of five generations: two back; two forward. Occasionally, we may stretch a rung or two beyond this construct, but generally speaking that’s our comfort zone. To help contrast animal time with geologic time, McPhee notes that geologists sometimes use a calendar year to represent the history of the earth. In the first ten months, the Precambrian period, the basement of time, there is little in the way of fossil records:

Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds.

McPhee then offers a try-at-home exercise to help break the bonds of animal time:

With your arms spread wide again to represent all the time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.

For geologists then, the human condition appears quite different:

They often liken humanity’s presence on earth to a brief visitation from elsewhere in space, its luminous, explosive
characteristics consisting not merely of the burst of population in the twentieth century, but of the whole residence of people on earth–a single detonation, resembling nothing so much as a nuclear implosion with its successive neutron generations, whole generations following one another once every hundred-millionth of a second. …[T]he human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it…. Primordial inhibition may stand in the way. On the geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about. The mind blocks the information.

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.