In late February of 1979 I boarded a plane in Colorado Springs en route to Boston with a stopover in Chicago. I had been teaching history to high school dropouts for most of the decade and was heading to Boston to interview for a graduate program in directing at Boston University. I felt unprepared and nervous. As I left my little house tucked on the north side of a series of rising crags that eventually help form the long northern spine of Pikes Peak, I grabbed the New Yorker Anniversary Issue, which in that period was large and filled with pieces from the best of their astonishing stable of writers. Fidgeting in my seat on the plane I perused the Table of Contents and found, “Brigand de Cuisine” by John McPhee. I turned to page 43 as the plane rose past the Peak and turned east toward whatever awaited. This was what I began to read,
“The fifth best meal I have ever sat down to was at a sort of farmhouse-inn that is neither farm nor inn, in the region of New York City. The fourth-best was at the same place–on a winter evening when the Eiswein afterward was good by the fire and the snow had not stopped falling for the day. The third-best meal I’ve ever had was centered upon some smoked whiting and pale mustard sauce followed by a saltimbocca, at the same place, on a night when the air of summer was oppressive with humidity but the interior of the old building was cool and musty under a slowly turning paddle fan.”
The plane droned on through the night, but I was floating, dreaming of talking my way into this school if only so that I could move closer to this mysterious restaurant and dine there. The chef had forbidden any name, including his own, to be used, and also refused to reveal where the place was, but that did not matter. McPhee had hooked me again.
I have loved John McPhee since first encountering him in the New Yorker in the late 1960s. He has had a life that a certain type of person might envy. For the past 60 years he has been a staff writer at the New Yorker, and has taught for just as long a famous non-fiction writing course at his alma mater, Princeton. He has published over thirty books (I have happily read 18) on a remarkably wide range of topics: Bill Bradley, oranges, Arthur Ashe, Scotch, David Brower, New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, hybrid airships, nuclear energy, birch-bark canoes, and then his masterpieces, Coming Into the Country from 1977, his book about Alaska just as the oil boom exploded, and Annals of the Former World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and is a compilation of his four short books on the geology of North America. Tucked into the first of the four books, Basin and Range, is a 30 page dissertation on Time that is as thrilling and lucid as anything I have ever read.
He makes any subject compelling because he is fascinated by the people he observes and travels with and listens to. The English naturalist Robert Macfarlane says of McPhee that his “sentences are born of patience and attention.” He loves facts but somehow writes them as if they were fiction. He also has an innate sense of imagistic story-telling. Here is a favorite moment from Coming Into the Country. He and his companions are camped part way up one side of a wide ravine eating when,
“…looking up from dinner, we saw a black bear, long and leggy, crossing a steep hillside at a slow lope. It stopped to graze for a time and then, apropos of nothing, suddenly ran and took a crashing leap into a stand of willow and alder, breaking its way through, coming out the other side into a high plain of pale-green caribou moss.”
I still remember putting the book down and picturing what McPhee saw and realizing, though I had spent my life playing frisbee with dogs, that animals as large and scary as bears sometimes just needed to be silly. A year later I was awakened on a Saturday morning by the incessant barking of my neighbor’s nervous dog. I looked out the front door to discover that the dog had treed a small black bear on the edge of my yard. The bear was 10 feet up the tree, the dog at the base, barking and barking. I left my Labrador inside and went out to watch the show. Eventually, the bear tired of the barking and began inching down the trunk. Every foot closer to the ground drove the barking dog backwards a few feet. When the bear finally hit the ground the dog was 20 feet from the tree, frozen in terror. The bear took one slow step in the dog’s direction and produced a ferocious growl, almost a bark. The dog took off running and the bear turned and ambled away up the road. Reading McPhee prepared me for the bear’s expressive frustration, which seemed just a bit of naughty fun at the dog’s expense.
His most recent book is, Draft #4, a compilation of essays about his non-fiction workshops at Princeton. It is elegant and wise and will become one of the handful of books on craft, such as The Elements of Style that students and interested readers will find useful for generations. One of his aphorisms in that book is, “A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.” John McPhee’s words have been sitting in my head and heart for many years, and I hope, for those of you who do not know him, to offer this introduction to a remarkable mind.
All of Arcadia’s books by John McPhee, and any others that you may be interested, can be ordered here.
While I was trying to write something about IBD and was stuck, I distracted myself with Amy Hempl’s new book, The Art of the Wasted Day, which was on the top of a leaning tower of books on the corner of my desk. It is Hempl’s musings on the freeing power of daydreaming and allowing your mind to surprise you when you don’t have it overburdened. Early in the book is the following from Virginia Woolf (from Moments of Being)
“If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—“.
And there was the gift. Because if Woolf is correct, and I believe she is, one of the better ways we fill and fill and fill our bowls is by reading. I always think (and am certainly not original in the thought) of books as rooms we enter. The best thing about each room being the proliferation of doors leading to other rooms. The book leads to thinking about something that leads to a door, which we did not know was there, and a book within that door which leads elsewhere, and we fill and fill as we go. Until twenty minutes ago I did not know that Virginia Woolf quote. And now it will live in me forever. A gift from her to me via Amy Hempl.
What we attempt to offer to you at Arcadia is a room full of doors to transport and change you and help you to fill and fill your bowl. Thank you for your many kindnesses and support for us in our first seven years. Come in and let us know what books have moved you recently, and look around for an hour or two. Remember the words of the great American poet William Stafford, “…wherever you are, there’s another door.”
James drew all of our attention to this review of author John Banville’s lovely new memoir, Time Pieces, in last week’s New York Times. It’s a pretty piece just on its own, from the very skilled Roger Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt is one of those fellows whose avuncular tone can sometimes work against him, since it can make his observations seem more charming than astute, but his recent books, Making Toast, Kayak Morning, and The Boy Detective, all share a real incisiveness about tough personal topics (grief, nostalgia, responsibility) that I have admired.
James is right – you should read what Roger Rosenblatt says about Time Pieces.
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