Thursday, January 03, 2008

I Heart John McPhee

I'm the world's slowest reader. (I am inconveniently married to the world's fastest reader, making my deficiency all the more obvious.) My bedside table and bookshelves are littered with half-read books, quarter-read articles, erratically thumbed tomes, all abandoned because they just weren't quite interesting enough to merit the huge amount of time required for me to read them.

I like to think this is not because I'm stupid but just how may brain works. I meander through the details. I flip back to earlier chapters, cross-referencing previous events with present ones. And—often—my mind justs wanders. Something sparks something and it jumps the track and ambles off into obscure ruminations that maybe sort of have something to do with something I was reading and five minutes later I return and realize I'm still staring at the same sentence.

But sometimes a book comes along and grabs me and sucks me in, and I find myself churning, chugging through the pages. I am currently gloriously immersed in John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers,* a collection of his articles on various modes of transport: a hazmat container truck, a tugboat on the Illinois River, cargo ships, coal trains...

I read (with great joy) some of the articles when they first appeared in the New Yorker, but I am blissfully happy to read them again along with the others. He details his workaday subjects with such interest and care, catching the right detail, the funny quote, tracing the unexpected connections, and—in total—shining a vivid clear light on a part of our world that goes unnoticed by most of us but is essential to all of us: the boats and trucks and things that go, and the people that make them go. Under McPhee's guidance, the lumbering coal train of my brain seldom jumps the tracks.**

* Thank you, kindly Christmas elves.

** He's written a gazillion other books. I wonder what they're about. Maybe I should read them too.


  1. He's written a gazillion other books. I wonder what they're about. Maybe I should read them too.

    I like all of his work (especially the geology-oriented ones) but definitely pick up The Control Of Nature. One of the sections ("Atchafalaya") explores the constraint of the path of the Mississippi and should be required reading for any resident of southeast Louisiana, in my opinion.

  2. As of late, I'm completely awful about reading books. I've got more unread than read, and unless something grabs me by the collar, I'l put it down and forget about it.

    I tried reading The Emperor's Children, but got bored with all the detail. Now I"m on Ian McEwan's Atonement, which as of page 2 is fine. I suppose it doesn't help that I've been sick for 4 weeks and can't concentrate on anything except... erh.....Project Runway. I don't know. Just call me an incredibly glib and shallow reader for now.

    Elle Magazine anyone?