March 6, 2010 | 11:03 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
If you share my fascination with what human beings have imagined about the beginning and ending of the world, you will find plenty to ponder in the Bible. But there are other and more recent texts to consider, including John McPhee’s masterpiece, “Annals of the Former World,” a “deep history” of the earth as it is has been studied not by theologians but geologists.
“With your arms spread wide . . . to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life,” writes McPhee in my favorite passage. “n a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history” — an era of only a few thousand years that can be seen as “a small bright sparkle at the end of time.”
McPhee, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker and author of more than two dozen books, won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about rocks. Now he is writing about silk.
“Silk Parachute” (Farrar Straus Giroux: $25.00, 227 pps.) is a collection of essays, most of which first appeared in the New Yorker, and the title piece refers to a toy parachute that his mother gave him when he was eleven or twelve years old. That silk parachute is his Rosebud.
“Folded just so, the parachute never failed,” writes McPhee. “Always, it floated back to you — silkily, beautifully— to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard — gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.”
So McPhee is stepping back from the heart-shaking and mind-boggling revelations of his writings on natural history and turning his attention to the delicate workings of memory in a single human lifetime. Even when he muses on the geological fact that a massive layer of chalk lies under much of Western Europe, he is attracted to what the human mind and hand have applied to the rock surfaces.
“Graffiti in the tunnels in the mountain — drawings, advertisements, people’s names — can be arranged as a sort of timescale of the ages of quarrying,” he writes in an essay titled “Season on the Chalk.” “There are names on the walls from 1551.”
Most of the memories that McPhee presents in “Silk Parachute” are pried out of his own life experience — canoeing at summer camp in Vermont, carrying golf-bags around the courses of New Jersey as a young caddie, following his daughter through New York City as she takes photographs with a 19th century view camera of the kind Matthew Brady used. Now and then, he offers an essay that is literally autobiographical, as when he presents a “life list” of exotic foods that he has sampled in his travels — lion, whale and bear meat, “bee spit,” and a fruit called a monthong that “smells strongly fecal and tastes like tiramisu,” among other exotic tidbits.
For purely personal reasons, my favorite piece in the collection is “Checkpoints,” which features one of my personal heroes, a former New Yorker editor named Sara Lippincott. I was among the many grateful reviewers who worked with Sara when she was an editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and I still see her at meetings of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC. The piece focuses on the New Yorker’s legendary fact-checking process and Sara’s role in making sure that the authoritative tone of McPhee’s writing was well-deserved. The thought kept occurring to me that “Checkpoints” ought to be required reading for anyone who contributes to Wikipedia, if only because Sara announces what ought to be an article of faith for authors and journalists.
“Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it,” she is quoted as saying, “is scrutinized.” And she explains why it matters: “Once an error gets into print it ‘will live on and on in libraries, carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed [and] silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.’”
And so passes the glory of the world, as I am always reminded whenever I read a book by John McPhee.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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