The John McPhee Reader

john mcphee photo2John McPhee’s work appears in nearly every writing class I teach. I offer it as a prime example of the carefully constructed and compelling narrative, though I have little interest in the subjects he writes about. I was never curious, for example, about the geology of the Grand Tetons or the intricacies of cattle branding in Nevada. But he always sucks me in. He does this by reminding us that there is only one story that matters, and it isn’t really about rocks or cows — it’s the story of people against the odds. Never mind that it involves heavy science or vegetable farming or pinball. McPhee is the master of presenting the human stake, no matter the subject.

The New Yorker issue of April 7 had another excerpt from his new book on writing that has also sucked me in. He drops some some big names here– Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, etc. All were interview subjects during his Time magazine days. He writes about his method of interviewing, somewhere between Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo and the kind of raw journalism I practiced in the late 1960s when I thought I could remember every quote someone gave me so didn’t write a thing down. Truman Copote had the same idea — he said he could memorize everything, and did. The difference was that Truman wrote a classic book, In Cold Blood, and I gave the daily fish wrapper accounts of the bombastic Munroe Falls town council where members brought tape recorders so they could sue fellow councilmen for slander.

Anyway, do take a look at McPhee’s piece. You’ll be reminded of what it really takes to succeed — the meticulousness, the passion, the craft. (I’m particularly thinking of the way McPhee describes Gleason’s “kettledrum laugh” and the (suddenly) late Mickey Rooney’s intolerance of journalists.

Well, feast on on this for yourself, and all of McPhee’s work. Read it for enjoyment and for craft. And see how quickly it will affect what you do with your laptop.

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4 Responses to The John McPhee Reader

  1. Carolynn Pianta says:

    Hey Lary, I did read McPhee’s psalm to writing as a journalistic insider; what an amazing writing-life. When I read the piece I actually used a highlighter. I haven’t used a yellow Sharpie wide-nib since Sophomore English. Highlighting didn’t help then, I hope it helps now. Great recommendation.

    By the way, welcome back from Praiano. What a distinguished bunch.
    Gee, I felt bad that I couldn’t go. We never did make it to Italy, in part, because my daughter had a baby, (our first grandchild). When you go to Australia, let me know, I’ll be there. My granddaughter’s name is Sydney.

  2. Bonnie says:

    Wonderful article! I look forward to studying McPhee’s writing. I, too, am so sad I missed Italy but I had some health issues (now resolved) . Hope to see Wally Lamb on Wednesday night in West Hartford. And I will end the seder a little differently this year with, “Next year in Praiano.” If you’ll have me!

  3. Paul says:

    Ever since I read Coming into the Country and Encounters with the Archdruid I have been thrilled to read anything that John McPhee has written. Just as you said, a good writer doesn’t have to write about what you are interested in because a good writer will be able to make you interested in what they are writing about. The other non-fiction writer that has done this for me is the late John Keegan, who wrote about military history in a way that always made me wonder at his ability as a writer, even though I was not a military history enthusiast. It is these two writers that made me appreciate the craft of writing non-fiction.

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