I love references, how they operate like conversational shorthand. When I describe the main character of The Invitation as “a store-brand Chris Stapleton,” I feel clever and efficient. If brevity is the soul of wit, then references are the bees of conversation, pollinating subjects by imbuing them with meaning from someplace else. Of course, the trouble with references is how they rely on a shared cultural vocabulary, and what’s double is that often my most apt referents are obscure. For better and more often worse, I forge ahead. (Oh, to hell with universality!) I watch Raising Arizona and ask my wife, “is that John C. Reilly on a motorcycle?” She thinks I’m serious. I say my 4-month-old daughter’s flailing arms remind me of Joe Cocker and my friend humors me with a closed lip smile, but I doubt his familiarity with “Space Captain.” After reading a profile in the New Yorker, I tell my coworker that Poo-Pourri’s founder seems like “a cross between Tony Robbins and Aldous Huxley,” and from her expression I know I’ve failed.
“Sick reference, bro,” says Jonah Hill in This Is the End, just before high-fiving Jay Baruchel. “Your references are out of control; everyone knows that.” (Oh, to always hit the mark!) Yet how deceptively difficult: to connect two far-flung details takes skill, but to correctly guess beforehand that both details are known by your peers…Reader, that’s genius. All year, I’ve drawn parallels and blasted them out like buckshot, unsure if most will stick. I’ve bridged gaps ignorant of whether people know what lies on the other side. I say things like, “Tolstoy is to Sunset Boulevard as Dostoevsky is to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” and I want people to understand not only the antic madness of the latter, but also that I obviously prefer Dostoevsky. Alas, when I’ve done so in person, I’ve mostly misfired. When I’ve done so on Twitter, I’ve earned modest faves. Maybe here I’ll do better.
In the recognition of patterns, the world is enriched. In the recognition of too many, things get weird. One of my neighborhood’s dividing lines is Falls Road. To the east lies a hip neighborhood filled with artists and yuppies. To the west is what my realtor calls “little West Virginia.” Farther outside of Baltimore is a place called Dundalk, which some say is lousy with “waterbillies.” How uncanny, then, to sit on my porch reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb Say Nothing, in which Falls Road bisects the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, and in which gun runners go on the lam in nearby Dundalk, County Louth.
Native Baltimorean Adrienne Rich wrote of “that estranged intensity / where [man’s] mind forages alone,” and I think of that when my references don’t work. I also thought of it when, midway through her Selected Poems: 1950-2012, I read “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” set in the American southwest—chiefly because it reminded me of another book, the best one I read all year. “This is the desert where missiles are planted like corns,” Rich wrote of an area near New Mexico, and voila, there I was, foraging alone in my recollection of Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West.
Maybe I like Wheeler’s essays so much because they, too, are stuffed with references. His essays position New Mexico as the spoke of the weirdest wheel on earth, just as Sam Anderson’s Boom Town positioned Oklahoma City as the country’s microcosmic center. Both books demonstrate there’s no such thing as insignificant detail; all seeds blossom in time. “When you encounter something seemingly meaningless, you can accept the numbness of it or ache for profundity,” Wheeler wrote. “I tend toward the ache.” (Hear hear.) Wheeler’s book has the additional allure of dwelling on one of my fascinations: maudlin drinking. (His acknowledgements page shouts out four different dive bars.) “I don’t want her money,” Wheeler wrote about his grandmother, who tried to offer him some. “I’d only waste it at the bar, trying to drink myself into the future.” That line sounds straight out of The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing’s spectacular noir novel, which like Wheeler’s book punctuates many of its drunken asides with the phrase, “Well, all right.”
Speaking of alcohol, Hamm’s had a big year with me. There it was in Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I wish the Coen Brothers would adapt. There it was again in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, being sold cheaper in an Arizona bar than at the Crest Cafe from A Woman Under the Influence. While watching the latter film I thought, I’ve read Lucia Berlin before.
Frank Bidart wrote, “there is a beast within you // that can drink till it is // sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” In Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban’s protagonist says, “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.” To thirst endlessly and to flirt with oblivion: these are the impulses pulling men together in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, the second-best book I read this year. (Those themes also power Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, which I read last year but need to shout out again.)
Sometimes I observe superficial patterns, and other times I observe something deeper. Reading Jia Tolentino’s “Ecstasy” essay in Trick Mirror, which is about church, that eponymous drug, Houston, and DJ Screw, I wished I was back in school so I could write about it being “in conversation with” the first story in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which is about church, that same drug again, Miami, and Celia Cruz. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science, which was sublime, I thought a lot about the android personae in Janelle Monae’s first album, which was as well. Reading Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” in Orange World, the third-best book I read this year, I thought not only of its inspiration, a photograph by Andrew Moore, but also of how that fondness for twisters is echoed by lines in “Tornado Season” from Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana: “I wanted to be carried— / green sky, sudden hail—with everything / I knew: blue spruce, white pine, the grey- / shingled bars of Whitley County, face / of the barber and his sharpened razor, / Marie at the Waffle House, Beau / Tucker over mufflers in his shop.” Come to think of it, 80% of the reason I bought Colette Arrand’s chapbook The Future is Here and Everything Must be Destroyed was because its cover referenced Waffle House. I’m glad I did it, and you should do the same.
Other times I observe patterns that are thematic. I think the moss hunter in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory belongs in the canon of workplace weirdos alongside the levitating accountant in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the psychotic closet-dwelling scientist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the dude with the “bee-beard” in that story from Ryan Boudinot’s The Littlest Hitler, the obvious scammers skulking about Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, and frankly everybody in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. From now on, when I mention this specific sub-canon, you’ll get the reference.
Elsewhere constellations were mapped by sheer happenstance. It was serendipity that my daughter, born about a week ahead of schedule, arrived one day after I watched Eraserhead, the world’s worst movie to view in those circumstances. Not two weeks prior, I’d finished Ironweed, which bears the same mantle among books. Fortunately, before both I’d read three books that, in their open dealings with its associated anxiousness, actually braced me for the realities of parenthood. Many reviewers have remarked on the titular story in Karen Russell’s Orange World being a parable of motherhood, but similar themes actually coarse through the entire book. In fact, the most affecting treatment of fatherhood I’ve ever read was in the tornado story I just referenced above. Also, while I enjoyed Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything enormously when I read them months before, it was not until those first weeks home with my new daughter that their powers were revealed. This is why I tell people now: whether you’re expecting or not, these books are outstanding. They will whisper to you down the road.
Most of the references that occur to me elude easy explanation, making them impossible to drop in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that, in one story in particular, Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting gives off big Takashi Miike vibes. Suffice it to say that the best sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would rival the best sections of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country were it not for Agee’s leering horniness. Suffice it to say that the narrator in Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known reminds me of Sideshow Bob in a good way. (Writing to Selma Bouvier from prison: “Your latest letter caused a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart.”). Suffice it to say that when I read Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, I was struck by the line, “A bore at home, he transformed in the city. // What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city” because it made me think about how in life most men are Kevin Finnerty while in their minds most men are Tony Soprano in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, suffice it to say, suffice it to say…
“No one ever came to my door in searching – / for you, no one, except for you -,” wrote Canisia Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis. There’s a recursive desire to move inward, to burrow, to coil like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I tell you this line haunts me as much as the one on the second page of Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I mean it, and I want you to know them both automatically; I don’t want to explain them further. “Some people say history moves in a spiral,” wrote Ocean Vuong in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel which deliberately lacks conflict. Of all these forms, Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode has much to say, because Alison’s book is one that identifies patterns, that draws upon references to do so. It was the fourth-best book I read this year. In college, she read us a story about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Every day I wonder about the threshold of commonality required to make casual references, because every day I read references to supposedly canonical things I fail to grasp. These can be low-brow: if you’ve ever referred to Saved by the Bell, you’ve lost me, because I’ve never seen it. Ditto pro wrestling. These can also be high-brow: Few allusions to Greek philosophers work on me; I don’t know enough Shakespeare to get most mentions of him. Still, I possess references you cannot possibly know. Before beating USC, Vince Young said he warmed up to a chopped and screwed version of T.I.’s “Tha King.” That’s stuck with me since tenth grade. It’s been my warm-up song since—for everything, even pumpkin picking. There are some things we never lose. You might say Twitter is a project of crowdsourced reference-making: the most basic and universal observations go viral because they are the most widely understood, while deeper cultural in-jokes amuse only niche audiences—if that—even when their connections work much better. All of us are in our own orbits with the world, each viewing but one face of the cultural sphere. The one I see will always be different from yours, but damned if I won’t try to show it to you.
At the local brewery some months ago, I sat next to a guy in a Mississippi State quarter-zip while he waited to fill his Mississippi State-branded growler. (We were nowhere near Mississippi.) The speakers played Vampire Weekend. I put down The Last Whalers because I got distracted by reality: my coworker is the sister of Mississippi State’s basketball coach, and Ezra Koenig quoted my stepbrother in our high school yearbook. (Life’s rich pageant!) Who could read about Lamalerans at a time like that? As always, who can think of anything but that line from Brian Phillips’s outstanding collection Impossible Owls, the fifth-best book of my year: “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.”
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The drive north into the oilfield at night showed the faint slopes of buttes ringed in sepia and burnt orange, then a drapery of glittering lights, civilization rising. Semi-trucks blared past the traffic cones and half-built apartments and hotels. I passed a roadside bust of Theodore Roosevelt, a man camp that the feds would soon discover was part of a worldwide Ponzi scheme, and the Wild Bison truck stop. It was fall 2014; I was traveling up North Dakota’s Highway 85 after several months away. I had arranged through a friend’s colleague to stay in a spare room at the Dakotaland trailer park, but now I could not find it on a map, nor by my friend’s vague directions to go north of the truck stop and turn right on an unmarked road.
What road? The sky was black, the lights of new buildings long past me. Where was the tobacco shop and the post office, the Hi Way Lounge and Hard Ride Saloon and the Ragged Butte Inn? I knew I had gone too far when I hit Route 200, near the first drilling rig I had visited over the summer, and I turned around. Still the old landmarks did not materialize. I imagined that I was hallucinating, driving back and forth into the void, and finally spied a vague turnoff onto a dirt road. An 18-wheeler followed, lights blaring, and the road kicked up dust so thick that it briefly blinded me; ahead, finally, was Dakotaland.
In the trailer was a foul-mouthed roughneck from Tuscaloosa who showed me to my room, which had been vacated by a rig worker who was carried out on a stretcher. In the clearness of morning, I saw that they’d built a massive bypass around the highway I used to know, in order to stop oil trucks from barreling through Watford City, population 1,700 before the oil rush. So the old route was gone—I always remembered this when considering how fast the oilfield changed, that one could be gone for less than four months and still lose her way on a road she’d traveled dozens of times before.
People often compared the boom here to the California Gold Rush. In the 1840s, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley sent 24-year-old Bayard Taylor to cover it, prompting him to sail through the Isthmus of Panama to the West Coast and visit a series of mining towns for his book Eldorado: or, Adventures in the Path of Empire. Taylor could have been me observing North Dakota when he grasped the drastic changes that could happen in short order: “When I landed there, a little more than four months before, I found a scattering town of tents and canvas houses … Now, on my last visit, I saw around me an actual metropolis, displaying street after street of well-built edifices, filled with an active and enterprising people, and exhibiting every mark of commercial prosperity.”
More than a century and a half later, the largest oil rush in modern U.S. history had transformed western North Dakota’s faded frontier into a crucible of breakneck capitalism. To chronicle such a rush one had to wed journalism and literature and history—to be a lone adventurer traveling to a remote outpost and capturing the greed, struggles and whimsies of the pioneers with nuance, depth and sporadic humor. It was a strange aspiration, perhaps, in the 21st century, where too much journalism is done in a coastal city in front of a computer. My idols, like Taylor, were mostly from bygone eras.
Another inspiration was Joe McGinniss. He’d been struggling to match the success of his bestselling debut The Selling of the President in 1968 when the massive discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, set off a pipeline boom that drew hordes of laborers, industrialists and hustlers to the northern frontier. The young writer had followed his hit expose of the Nixon presidential campaign with a novel about a sportswriter and a memoir, both poorly received, and was looking for his next project. He boarded a ferry from Seattle to Alaska in late fall, making friends with a hard-drinking character named Eddie the Basque, and set out to try another genre.
McGinniss spun tales of pioneers, gadflies, rangers, and indigenous people in Going to Extremes, writing with decidedly more of an offbeat, absurdist voice than John McPhee did in his own Alaskan account Coming into the Country. The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed McGinniss’s reporting as a grittier, harder-edged take on the topic than the denser, more measured McPhee’s—a portrait of the “‘real’ Alaska.” McGinniss was interested in writing an adventurous frontier story that explored the psychology and culture around the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, ignoring the geopolitics of oil in the seventies.
The Bakken shale was the largest oil discovery since Prudhoe Bay, and I wanted to write a book about this brilliant new microcosm of American greed and striving. (During the year of this essay’s beginning, McGinness passed away from prostate cancer at age 71.) Unlike him and Taylor, I would not embark on a grand journey by sea—instead, I’d drive from my apartment in Minneapolis, stopping for gas near Fargo off Interstate 94, where there would invariably be some shifty-eyed man at the next pump over—probably just out on parole—and know, without saying a word, that he was bound for the oilfield six hours across the state. That look. Freedom, desperation, adventure, meth, money … Then I’d carry on, driving into long and green hollows of feral quiet that ran hundreds of miles. Get out in some smudge of a town like Harvey to fill the tank again—shiver in the eyes of stillness that beamed over that endless expanse—retreat to the car as if to escape forces that would pull a human interloper into the fissures of the earth. Remember this upon arriving at the western flank of the state, where trucks and rigs and men ran roughshod and nature was the trespasser.
I was astonished, upon my first trip to the oil hub of Williston, when several people mentioned offhand that they had seen men drag a passed-out woman from the bushes into a van. “What did the police say?” I asked, and they shrugged. It hadn’t occurred to them to call the cops. A Scottish author’s observation of the fortune-seekers in San Francisco during the 1850s could very well have applied to those of the North Dakota oil rush. “The community was composed of isolated individuals, each quite regardless of the good opinion of his neighbors; and, the outside pressure of society being removed, men assumed their natural shape …” wrote J.D. Borthwick in Three Years in California. Then Taylor wrote—as was true in 2014, with oil topping $100 a barrel—that the cost of land, rents, and goods had steadily increased and “there would be before long a crash of speculation. Things, it appeared then, had reached the crisis, and it was pronounced impossible that they could remain stationary.”
Some of the great frontier writers were just as interested in striking it rich as the workaday miners around them. Mark Twain grew “smitten with silver fever” in Nevada, but his efforts amounted to little. He and a friend lost their legal claim to a silver mine by not acting in time; then he lost money in mining stock investments. College dropout Jack London departed California for Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, braving the White Horse Rapids and 40-below temperatures and roughing it in a cabin on the Stewart River. “I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” he lamented afterwards, with $4.50 worth of gold in his pocket. Being a woman without the brawn for a real oil job, I cashiered at the Wild Bison truck stop for a month at $14 an hour—double the minimum wage at the time but certainly not big oil money, just enough to pay my way reporting a magazine story—and set about documenting the people who came in.
I met a Wild Bison customer who wore a low-hanging shirt that exposed an enormous tattoo across his chest that said murder. Another was a bounty hunter from south Texas. A regular was selling waste disposal services from rig to rig after his banking scandal drew the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission and New York Times. A twitchy hitchhiker with only $30 to his name washed in from Maine.
Outsiders, outcasts, hustlers, Americans in extremis. Who else, after all, would be drawn to the frontier? McGinniss described white (and therefore, new) residents in one Alaska town thus: “They were unusual people, the whites of Barrow. They had to be: else why would they have been there? They had come seeking adventure, or high wages, or more frequently, escaping from problems outside. Recently divorced, in many cases. Needing a fresh start, someplace distant … to survive as a white in Barrow, you needed an unusual degree of psychological stability. But to have come to Barrow as a white, in the first place, you already had displayed an extraordinary absence of the same.”
I spent about a year total in the oilfield, covering the transformation from raw frontier to civilization. I favored a more investigative approach than the travelogue popular with my predecessors, but above all was wary of the newspaper conventions that had locked me in for the past decade—fine for most stories, but a limitation on the expansive writing needed to capture the story at hand. Frontier writing also had to be written from the first person, though going gonzo was optional. The Southern writer Harry Crews went to cover the Alaskan pipeline boom for Playboy and woke up after a bender to discover a tattoo of a hinge on his arm, but no bounty of liquor or promise of literary infamy could have coaxed me into the tattoo parlor Skinful Pleasure in downtown Williston.
Gonzo or not, I had to cultivate many sources during their own benders, as oilfield types were disproportionately heavy drinkers who would not suspend their habits to participate in my book. When I turned my back on one oilfield entrepreneur for a few minutes at a bar, he began insulting the bartender in a drunken rampage and was kicked out. He called me the next day to say he woke up with $600 missing, possibly at the strip club he went to afterwards.
But frontier reporting had vastly changed in some respects. For one, the speculative nature of the old gold and oil rushes no longer existed—there was no mass starvation, and few impoverished, penniless miners. Oil companies knew where and how to extract crude with almost total precision. The technological advances of our modern fracking boom meant that an aspiring worker could get an oil job as long as he could pass a drug test, and if he could not, those were easy enough to fake. A Houston roughneck who lived next door to me in Dakotaland once got away with pouring Mountain Dew into a urine test cup to hide his penchant for marijuana.
Also, newspapers—print overall, really—no longer played the role they did in hyping past gold and oil booms. Consider how in 1897, an extra edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer trumpeted the arrival of a steamer from Alaska loaded with more than a ton of solid gold:
GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!
Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland.
STACKS OF YELLOW METAL!
The article celebrated the steamer’s cargo worth $700,000. Thousands rushed to see the boat dock. Newspapers around the country printed stories, spurring a stampede to Alaska by way of Seattle. In the 1970s, a New York Daily News article about the pipeline boom resulted in 6,576 letters and 1,370 phone calls to the pipeline company in one month, according to the Alaskan journalist Dermot Cole.
But starting in 2011, it was the screen that propelled people all over America to the North Dakota oilfield. One viewer in Olympia, Washington, saw a news feature on the oil boom during a blur of Jersey Shore episodes. He struggled to find work after being laid off as a graphic artist and had been melting for weeks into a tattered couch in front of the TV, spending his unemployment checks on booze, pizza and ice cream. Gregg Thompson soon packed his belongings and rode the Amtrak 1,100 miles east, eventually finding a job at an oilfield Walmart.
He also found a side hustle in filming YouTube videos about life in the oil patch, casting himself as a quirky citizen reporter expounding on everything from slumlords to tumbleweeds. Gregg had the edge because chronicles from out of state journalists were either sensational or generic—the reporters usually spent only a few days on the ground. It is amusing to contemplate how we would have imagined the Klondike Gold Rush or Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction had YouTube been around at the time—the medium is particularly suited to the individualist, unfiltered nature of a boomtown. What if Twain had been roaming Virginia City, Nevada, in the 1860s making online videos, instead of penning tall tales as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper? With my notebook and pen, even a laptop perched on the bar, I was too old-school—everybody wanted to be on camera.
Even more strikingly, the persona of the swashbuckling male writer had faded. I’d look around the truck stops and bars and oil sites and wonder who the male successors to Taylor, Twain and McGinniss were, but female journalists like me now dominated immersive writing out there. Blaire Briody moved into an RV park one summer to report a book called The New Wild West, even going undercover as a day laborer. Laura Gottesdiener went undercover to work as a waitress at a strip club for a magazine piece; on her first night, one patron beat another to death with a pipe. Sierra Crane Murdoch filed thoughtful, longform dispatches about the oil boom’s effects on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
I waited for the article about a male author going undercover as a roustabout, or the book deal of a male adventurer’s oilfield bar-hopping, but it never came. (Men did documentaries instead.) And in reading the writing of my predecessors, I found no guidance for the annoyances I would face as a woman, such as being turned down by several landlords for a room because a woman was considered a liability in a patriarchal, gender-segregated society. I eventually spent the majority of my oilfield tenure living in a house of all women near Walmart.
The speculative bubble that Taylor observed was just as true in North Dakota, and I was on the ground for the long, torturous spiraling of the Bakken’s fortunes as oil prices crashed and OPEC put the squeeze on the U.S. shale industry—the exodus of migrants, the misery, the homelessness, the dreams betrayed. Twain’s exaggerated musings on the California gold rush towns echoed in a later century. “And where are they now?” Twain asked of the old fortune-seekers. “Scattered to the ends of the earth—or prematurely aged and decrepit—or shot or stabbed in street affrays—or dead of disappointed hopes and broken hearts—all gone, or nearly all— victims devoted upon the altar of the golden calf—the noblest holocaust that ever wafted its sacrificial incense heavenward.” I read those words again and again while I was in North Dakota—they were my favorite lines in his book Roughing It—as he talked of this “most splendid population” that had converged on California and then dispersed. Many of the people who industrialized the North Dakota oilfield left for new adventures when the money dried up, bold and noble participants in one of the most fascinating capitalistic experiments of the American 21st century.
As oil hit $27 a barrel in January 2016, a 13-year low, it was a wise time to flee the oilfield. When I mention life on the frontier nowadays, having moved to the Washington, D.C., area, some look at me oddly. North Dakota? What’s there? Several colleagues are baffled at why I went out at all; one called it a hellscape. An editor for a major publishing house said several years back that he liked everything about my book proposal but the topic, that I was “intrepid in the extreme in moving … to the shithole (sorry) that North Dakota has become as a result of that shale oil boom,” but it was too dispiriting to read about.
Yet after finally publishing my own frontier book this spring, I am sure that the oilfield is where I found myself as a writer, a journalist, an adventurer, just as London concluded that he had found himself in the Klondike. (“You get your true perspective,” he said.) Something about a rush and a collapse, giddy hopes and despair, muddy boots and gritty prairies, has forged my path as a writer more than any of my news reporting jobs over the years. Twain was a failure as a silver miner, and Roughing It is not considered among his best-known books. But he published his books on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn over the next decade. Taylor established himself as a world traveling writer and diplomat. McGinniss went on to write some of his best-known work, including true-crime book Fatal Vision. The frontier is often just the beginning.
Image: Flickr/Tim Evanson
John McPhee somewhat famously teaches writing to undergrads at Princeton. So, what’s on his syllabus?McPhee has been one of my favorite writers ever since I absently picked up a copy of Coming into the Country while working the cash register at Book Soup in L.A. and blazed through it in a day or two. I was hooked. From then on, I scanned the table of contents in each new New Yorker for the name McPhee. Meanwhile, McPhee’s books, many in number and varied in subject, were ideal targets for used bookstore visits. I found Table of Contents in a pile of books on the sidewalk. I spotted The McPhee Reader on my father in law’s bookshelves. I picked up a remaindered copy of Annals of the Former World, wanting the largest possible dose of McPhee.I also soon discovered that he teaches a class to undergrads at Princeton. It’s in some places referred to as “Creative Nonfiction” and in others as “The Literature of Fact.” A 2007 article in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin offers the most detail, including an example of his rather unique technique for visualizing story structure:”I’m obsessed with the structure of pieces of writing,” explained McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton’s Ferris Professor of Journalism, who has taught his legendary class on writing at the University for more than 30 years.For his students, McPhee sketches primitive diagrams – a horizontal line with loops above and below it to represent the tangents along the storyline, a circle with lines shooting out of it that denote narrative pathways – to illustrate how a piece of writing is assembled. The “doodles,” as he calls them, are projected on a screen in front of the class.Students get to hear from some impressive visitors, and get plenty of face time with McPhee himself:McPhee requires the same of the 16 students – all sophomores – in his “Creative Nonfiction” course, in which students discuss and practice the craft of writing through reading, listening to guest lecturers like New Yorker writers Ian Frazier and Mark Singer and, most critically, meeting one-on-one with McPhee for private conferences about their work. After McPhee marks up the students’ papers, he sits down with each student and goes over the writing line by line.Another interesting tidbit:Other former students include David Remnick, now The New Yorker’s editor (“I’m proud of the fact that he’s turned down work of mine,” McPhee said)It’s a fascinating little profile of McPhee, but it left one big question unanswered. What’s on John McPhee’s syllabus? Who do his students read? It turns out to be hard info to find, and some time spent with Google turned up what might be the reason why; to quote McPhee, himself, “There’s no syllabus.”This comes from a 2005 piece called “Courses in science writing as literature” in the academic journal Public Understanding of Science, which includes a bit on McPhee. The piece isn’t freely available online, but with Google I was able to piece together the relevant section:The most famous nonfiction literature course is probably The Literature of Fact, taught since 1975 at Princeton University by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee. It is widely cited as a science-writing-as-literature course, but McPhee disavows this label. “My course is not devoted to science writing . . . It’s a plain writing course with no thematic base . . . There’s no syllabus. Reading varies each year. Mostly, I give them books of mine to read. (such as The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed and Looking for a Ship)”I had a flash of disappointment upon reading this before realizing that, with about eight McPhee books under my belt, I’m already well into the McPhee syllabus. Reading McPhee’s books is an education in Creative Nonfiction unto itself.Bonus News: We’ve recently heard that McPhee has a new book coming out in March 2010 called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “Silk Parachute” about his elderly mother. It begins “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.”See Also: A Lawrence Weschler reading list and The New New Journalists.
Have you ever wondered why someone doesn’t write a really interesting book about shoemakers or Idaho or health inspectors? When I worked at the bookstore I used to get questions like this all the time. Usually, I was forced to stare blankly for a moment before performing a futile search on the computer. But every once in while, someone would ask, “Are there any really good books about the geology of North America?” And my eyes would light up and I would say, “Yes!” The same was true if they asked for books about merchant marines, Alaska, or canoes. John McPhee has the ability – which I prize as a reader – to write engagingly about any subject, and Founding Fish is no exception. In this case, the subject is the American Shad. The fish is prized by anglers and gourmands and pops in and out of American history. But this is not “the cultural history of American Shad” (are we tired of these “cultural history of…” books yet?”) Instead he weaves history with science as well as plenty of personal observation. The myriad digressions are like seams of precious metal. McPhee’s world is populated with fascinating characters – ichthyologists, shad dart makers, and a seine fisherman from the Bay of Fundy. If you have a taste for non-fiction and would like a book that is diverting and pleasurable (rather than “hard-hitting” and topical) try reading John McPhee.Spotted on the el: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin ThomasonNew list: The Economist best of the year.
When I was a teenager and I slept in my teenager’s bedroom in the basement of my parents’ house, I used to keep my stereo on all the time. Every moment that I was in that bedroom there was music playing. I kept it on while read at night, and then I left it on while I was asleep. I liked my music so much that I would have rather listened to it all night than go to sleep. My compromise was to try to do both at the same time. The lasting effect of this, aside from my residual insomnia problems, is that I have intense musical connections with many of the books I read in high school. This has given rise to some odd but unbreakable pairings, like whenever I happen to see a copy of Lloyd C. Douglas’ classic of historical fiction The Robe, I get songs from Bob Marley’s Legend stuck in my head. I can use these odd musical, literary pairings like an archeologist to dredge up memories from years ago. Likewise, I can look back over the books I read this last year and extract the various experiences that are wrapped up with each one. When 2003 began I set a goal to read 75 books over the next twelve months. I didn’t even come close. Unless I have left one or two off the list, and I may have, I read 29 books last year. I have many excuses for this, but the one I like the most is that I read a few books this year that I enjoyed so much that I couldn’t help but to savor them, to ingest them nibble by nibble as I pushed aside my silly goal of gluttonous literary consumption. What I’m saying is, it was a good year, so lets get started.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee: This monster of a book is McPhee’s paeon to the geology of the United States. As always McPhee is readable, but the ambition of this book (which is really five books in one) is what won him the Pulitzer when it came out. Sometime in the summer or fall of 2002 I read McPhee’s book about Alaska, Coming into the Country, because it happened to be sitting on the bench next to me on my break at the bookstore. Once I started reading it I was hooked, and I’ve been a big fan of McPhee’s ever since. This one is big (almost 700 pages) and it took me a while to read. I was also moving at the time to the house where I live now with fruit trees and a balcony and a guy who sells tamales out of the back of his car on our street every day. As far as I can tell, though, there are no exposed rock faces nearby and therefore no opportunities for amateur geology, though the book did manage to get me very interested in the subject.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I have long bemoaned the huge gaps in my library. There are many classics that I have never read. As I recall, I was particularly struck by this notion early in 2003 and one Sunday night shift at the book store, afroth with my desire to get some of those classics out of the way, I dove into Gatsby. I read half the book that night on my breaks and the other half when I got home, staying up late to finish the last few pages. I hadn’t read a whole book in a day in a long time, and that felt good. When you digest a book as a single unit like that, you are able to look at differently. It’s like the difference between falling in love in one night and falling for someone over a period of weeks or months. I enjoyed the book, of course, though it is referred to so often, in so many settings, that it felt like I had already read it. Still, it was great to finally see what all the fuss is about.Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson: It was a very happy coincidence that I happened to read Gatsby right before I read this book because one of the sections of this book is an extended riff on the Daisy character. Gilligan’s Wake is a truly bizarre post-modern confection the created a minor splash at the beginning of 2003. It’s outlandish premise is to describe the lives of each of the characters of Gilligan’s Island before they went on their fateful three hour tour. The result is a vibrant pastiche of twentieth century history and popular culture, for, you see, the Skipper and Ginger and all the rest happened to lead very complex lives that intersected with the lives of some very important people. Having said that, this book isn’t a farce or a parody or anything like that, and in fact the language can be quite brutal. It might be best to describe the book as Pynchon soaked in TV culture. It’s an interesting read that I never would have come across had it not been for the fact that many of the folks at the book store read it when it came out.Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski: When I read Kapuscinski’s book The Soccer War a couple of years ago, I did so under the assumption that it was his best book. Maybe I was told this by a book store clerk somewhere, or I based it on Amazon rankings and reviews. It’s a very good book, kind of mind-blowing for me, really, since I had never read anything like it. I was very excited about discovering the work of this globe-trotting Polish journalist, but I assumed that his other books might be slightly lesser works. So, naturally, I was thrilled when I discovered that Imperium, his book about the Soviet Union and its fractured remnants, was a fantastic book, full of Kapuscinski’s usual personal insights and vision. This book propelled me on to a Soviet kick that would lead me to read several books on the subject before the year was out.The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor: For some reason, the review of this book in the New York Times put me in a real frenzy to read it. I think because it reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan, a book from 2002 that I really loved. Although I have read and enjoyed many of Trevor’s short stories, I just couldn’t get into this book. It was too even. There is a dramatic event at the center of this story but it is too buried by the passage of time to be a driving force.On Writing by Stephen King: I’ve always been a defender of Stephen King. As he will readily admit, he has written some clunkers for a buck, but his best books are really fantastic. I have also always enjoyed his writing about himself. This book is part memoir, part writing handbook, and part pep talk, and it is very readable. King avoids all the double talk that many writers will shell out when they write about writing. King manages to tell us that, just like anything else, writing is best when you have fun doing it, and if you’re having a lot of fun, it’s probably good enough to be publishedThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This was the great discovery of the year for me, a book that I spent a lot of time on and a book that I never wanted to finish. I spent nearly two months reading this one, and Mutis’ book is so vivid with adventure and characters, it felt like I was living a double life. It all started with a review of the book by John Updike in the New Yorker early last year. I read the first few paragraphs and something clicked. I knew I had to read this book, and as soon as I started I knew it would be fantastic. Soon, I had convinced several coworkers to read it and we recommended it to many others. Over the course of the year my bookstore alone sold hundreds of copies, and friends of friends of friends were asking me if I had ever read this incredible book about a mysterious fellow named Maqroll. In March I happened to meet a hero of mine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and we talked briefly about Maqroll. Lately, my thoughts have turned to reading it again, and I’m thinking that sometime soon I will add it to my reading queue so that I can read it again soon, and I think I will probably keep it on the queue so that I can read it again every year or two. It’s just that good.American Studies by Louis Menand: After reading Menand’s Pulitzer prizewinner The Metaphysical Club, I added Menand to my list of favorite writers, so I was excited to read his follow up, a collection of essays with subjects ranging from T. S. Eliot to Larry Flynt. Menand is truly a master of the form, but I yearned for another book-length work that would allow him to really strut his stuff.Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards: I picked up this hardcover on a bookfinding expedition and had a good time reading through it. It’s chock full of pill popping divorcees and heavily cloaked anti-Nixon screeds. Joking aside, there are actually some truly remarkable stories in this book as I describe in this post from May 13th.Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent: I’ve always been a baseball fan, but it seems like I spent much of 2003 in a baseball frenzy. Recognizing this, my friend Patrick recommended this book to me and I really enjoyed it. Okrent spent months researching and preparing to write an entire book about a single game. The result is a detailed picture of the individual intricacies that combine to create one ballgame.That’s all for now. Parts 2 and 3 to come.