The inspiration for this column is one of the most wonderfully strange books I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading (strange and a bit melancholy), John McPhee’s Tabula Rasa. Given this subject matter, the column itself should proceed accordingly. I will do my best to comply.
John McPhee turned ninety-two in March of this year. In his long career as a writer for The New Yorker, starting in the 1960s, he has taken up a dizzying array of subjects, ranging from the basketball player Bill Bradley to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, from nuclear energy to the survival of the birch-bark canoe, and from family practice doctors to the Swiss Army, not to mention a monumental four-volume series on the geology of North America (and geologists) and much more. My ample McPhee shelves at home can’t contain them all, and stray volumes are to be found here and there. He is by any measure one of the best writers of his era; I have argued that by now he should have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, a claim I don’t regard as “provocative” or “controversial” but rather as a simple statement of fact.
He sees the world from an angle quite different from my own; he writes (so I said in 2019) “as a great-great-great-grandchild of the American Enlightenment. Old words like ‘sin’ and ‘grace’ are alien to him. There is so much to see in the world, so much to understand, so much to be described in lucid sentences deftly concealing the immense labor that went into their construction.”
Given all this, to read on the dust-jacket of Tabula Rasa that in this book “McPhee looks back at his career from the vantage point of his desk drawer, reflecting wryly upon projects he never completed or published” is to experience massive cognitive dissonance. Projects he never completed? Is this a joke? And if so, what kind? Tabula Rasa means “blank slate,” of course. Are we to take the title as suggesting that, in his nineties, McPhee has at last run out of steam? And what about the jokey designation, “Volume 1”? (For more on that, see the early chapter titled “The Moons of Methuselah.”)
But the book is wonderful: “fey,” episodic, darting hither and yon yet never rushed, arriving at no conclusions. If you have never read McPhee before, a few pages of Tabula Rasa will give you the flavor of his mind. Not to your taste? Fine. But if you enjoy this book—you’ll know right away whether you will—you have a lot to look forward to, the work of a lifetime.
Reading Tabula Rasa in the spirit in which it was written (or so I suppose) took me back to the end of the 1980s. Wendy and I and our kids, along with my mother and brother, were living in Pasadena; the eldest of our four, Anna, had started at Middlebury in the fall of 1988. I had been working as an editor for a reference publisher, Salem Press, for a little less than a decade. I needed to earn a bit of extra money. Earlier, for three years, I’d taught as an adjunct in the English department at California State University, Los Angeles. I wondered if I might be able to pick up one class per quarter for the academic year beginning in September 1990.
Mostly I taught “composition,” a required class, but one quarter I was given a course called “Advanced Writing.” The enrollment was so small, I was afraid the class would be cancelled, but fortunately it wasn’t. The students were an interesting bunch, highly motivated. Several of them were planning to go on to law school. I had great freedom in planning the course. Our reading for the quarter largely consisted of two books: The John McPhee Reader and Looking for a Ship, a McPhee book published in September 1990 after serialization in The New Yorker.
Those might seem like eccentric choices, but they didn’t merely reflect my admiration for McPhee. I believed that the students, whatever their own guiding motivations and interests, could profit more from close attention to McPhee than from more conventional sources. Most of the course was spent in a page-by-page read-through of Looking for a Ship after having absorbed the introduction and selected pieces from the Reader.
Really? A book about one of the last American merchant marine ships? But what we could learn about writing from McPhee’s book was applicable to whatever you or I might want to take up. That wouldn’t at all entail trying to write “like John McPhee.” (As if we could!) But reading him with attention immersed us in the thousands of decisions a writer makes in the course of writing a book, sentence-by-sentence (that especially) but also in the big picture, conceiving and shaping an extended narrative. Of all the classes I taught in my relatively brief stints here and there, that was my favorite. (I wish I could hear from the students, if they even remember it after all these years!)
I have only one gripe with Tabula Rasa, and that concerns the physical production of the book. In the old days (and not all that long ago), Farrar, Straus and Giroux published books that were well made. The production values of this one aren’t up to snuff; like so many books these days, it feels and looks cheap. Even so, I am glad to have it, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in hoping that there will be a Volume 2.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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