One of the things I love about reading good nonfiction is that it’s as if you’ve sent your own explorer out into the world and been tasked with returning with the most interesting things he can find.
Sometimes writers explore ideas, sometimes it may be the past (as in a work of history), or perhaps an interesting person (biography) or a scandalous event (true crime). Whatever the subject or approach, the joy of reading comes with a kind of fusion of consciousness; suddenly you experience the world through another person’s mind. This union can feel almost mystical, and given that none of us have time to explore everything that might be of interest, it’s great that there are countless others out there at any given moment, uncovering hidden treasures for the rest of us.
One of my absolute favorite explorers is John McPhee and his latest book “Tabula Rasa” allows the reader to gain a unique insight into the author.
At age 92 and a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1963, McPhee’s discoveries were literally all over the map. Sometimes it brings us interesting people; For example, his first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” is about young Bill Bradley, a college basketball star and Rhodes scholar who is not yet an NBA Hall of Famer and a non-American. Senator.
McPhee is also a great historian of the natural world, as in his book “Oranges,” which is about oranges, or his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Annals of the Old World,” which examines our landscapes through the lens of geography. . “Unusual Carriers” turns the seemingly boring way of moving freight from one place to another into something incredibly fascinating, revealing a huge aspect of our lives that would otherwise remain hidden.
“Tabula Rasa” is a book of bits and pieces and pieces from the stories McPhee never got around to writing; some of these are unplanned projects, others are incidental moments of topics worthy of additional research. Some entries consist of vignettes, such as a conversation McPhee once had with Peter Benchley (author of “Jaws”) about whether he would stop writing if he “made too much money to write again.” McPhee could not imagine such a scenario for himself, so he did not take up the offer, but he observes in his article that Benchley continued to write long after he made his fortune from the shark book.
Other pieces are a little longer; memories of events in his own career, such as the origin story of his book about oranges, wondering what was the changing color of the freshly squeezed juice at the Penn Station counter from which he drank his daily glass.
What all the pieces reveal is a life dedicated to witnessing and contemplating the world around him. This is the work of every writer, every good writer, but McPhee is unusually insightful about his own orientations and process. 2017 “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process” details how to piece together a piece from the pieces of his research and observations.
“Tabula Rasa” provides a more in-depth look at the raw material and reveals that despite the apparent genius of McPhee’s final products, there is a much more mundane yet utterly fascinating reality to the process.
Perhaps oddly, “Tabula Rasa” both reveals what it means to write about the world and deepens one’s delight in the many mysteries inherent in writing.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Requirements.”
Book recommendations from Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what you should read, based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “White Noise” By Don DeLillo
2. “Double: A Journey into the Mirror World” By Naomi Klein
3. “Lapvona” By Ottessa Moshfegh
4. “Stupid” Recorded by Elif Batuman
5. “Girls” By Emma Cline
— Mina P., Barcelona, Spain
Mina needs something with good psychological intensity. For me, this evokes Dana Spiotta and her latest novel, “Wayward.”
1. “Bee Sting” by Paul Murray
2. “City of Victory” By Salman Rushdie
3. “Enemy” by JM Coetzee
4. “The Sense of Ending” by Julian Barnes
5. “Sea” By John Banville
—Ben T., San Francisco
What’s it like to read a murder mystery where the point of the book isn’t to expose the police? Jim Crace’s song “Being Dead” answers this question, and I think it’s a great fit for Ben.
1. “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands” By Kate Beaton
2. “Swing Time” By Zadie Smith
3. “The Goldfinch” By Donna Tartt
4. “Little Friend” By Donna Tartt
5. “Evil Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver
—Leah B., Chicago
Rufi Thorpe has produced some funny and wise novels away from the spotlight; one of which is “Dear Fang, With Love,” which is my recommendation for Leah.
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