A literary legend’s engaging review of his career, stressing the work he never completed, and why.
Over seven decades, John McPhee has set a standard for literary nonfiction. Assaying mountain ranges, bark canoes, experimental aircraft, the Swiss Army, geophysical hot spots, ocean shipping, shad fishing, dissident art in the Soviet Union, and an even wider variety of other subjects, he has consistently written narrative pieces of immaculate design.
In Tabula Rasa, Volume 1, McPhee looks back at his career from the vantage point of his desk drawer, reflecting wryly upon projects he once planned to do but never got around to—people to profile, regions he meant to portray. There are so many examples that he plans to go on writing these vignettes, an ideal project for an old man, he says, and a “reminiscent montage” from a writing life. This first volume includes, among other things, glimpses of a frosty encounter with Thornton Wilder, interrogative dinners with Henry Luce, the allure of western Spain, criteria in writing about science, fireworks over the East River as seen from Malcolm Forbes’s yacht, the evolving inclinations of the Tower of Pisa, the islands among the river deltas of central California, teaching in a pandemic, and persuading The New Yorker to publish an entire book on oranges. The result is a fresh survey of McPhee’s singular planet.