Obviously, the effect of letting this notion of deep time seep into one’s conscience is not always comforting–or productive. When I came home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina I heard many fellow Orleanians talk about the traditions and history of the city that had to be saved. I found myself thinking that the surrounding ground was lying to us. With its five-hundred-year-old oak trees draped in Spanish Moss and its eighteenth-century historic landmarks, the landscape of New Orleans does appear old–from the perspective of animal time almost primordial. In geologic time, though, it’s quite young and unstable. The Mississippi River deposited the ground on which the city is built only in the last ten thousand years–a minute ago in geologic time–and will take it back just as fast. On the other hand, escaping from animal time can be comforting as well. Whenever ethnic violence flares up at home or abroad, I take some solace in the fact that just 50,000 years ago we were all one small tribe living in Africa. Surely then we can come to recognize our own family whom we left only a moment ago.

The achievement of McPhee in writing Annals isn’t to teach you to measure time, which is an intellectual enterprise, but to make you feel it, to guide your senses in peering around the built-in barriers that retard our detection of its true dimensions. He does this in a manner befitting his subject matter: through mass and constant pressure. When we talked, David Remnick told me that,
although he had read all the sections of the book when they were first published, they somehow gained power when collected together, accumulated and compressed, as it were, to a far greater density. It’s the kind of density that has its detractors. Though McPhee is revered by many writers, particularly those ”McPhinos”(like Remnick) who took his writing course, The Literature of Fact, at Princeton, there are others who find his work ponderous, his choice of subjects off-putting, and his exalted status among egghead journalists irritating. In 2005, Michael Wolff, who covers the media for Vanity Fair magazine, took a swipe at ”the cult of John McPhee,”calling the man himself ”a writer of fabled factuality and unstylishness, who, I would wager, has seldom been read to the end by anybody other than his acolytes.”

I guess that means I should be fitted for vestments, because I find it hard to see how anyone who has started a McPhee story could put it down, a fact of which I was reminded not long after agreeing to write this assessment of Annals. Looking for my copy, I realized that I had left it at my apartment in Washington, D.C., so I went by a local bookstore in New Orleans to see if they had it in stock. No luck, but they did have Coming into the Country, the book that had first sparked my affinity for McPhee. It was a beautiful day, and I sat outside on the lawn of an old mansion that’s been converted to a small library in my neighborhood, a place where I sometimes go to write. For a while I tried to read with a critical eye, plumbing the text for clues as to what so rankles McPhee’s critics (the penchant for Melvillean lists? The sometimes glacial pacing?) and also for what I liked (Melvillean lists, glacial pacing). I was dutiful for a while, but the sun was warm and as the afternoon wore on I ended up putting my pen aside and lying back on the grass. On the avenue in front of the library, the after-school traffic swelled and knotted, but it was too late by then to disturb my reverie. I had already slipped back onto the Salmon River, and all the honking SUVs were snarling grizzly bears.

 

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Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.