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.
I’d noticed that over the last few months, John McPhee’s articles in the New Yorker have been somewhat thematically linked, and it occurred to me that his next book would probably be about that theme, transportation. Based on the contributor’s notes from last weeks issue, it appears as though this is indeed the case: “This piece” – about coal trains – “is part of a series about freight transportation that will be published as a book, Uncommon Carriers, in May.” None of those articles are available online, but off-hand I recall ones about river barges, UPS’s gargantuan shipping operation and riding along in a tanker truck. In an interview at the New Yorker site, McPhee talks a little bit more about the book, which he says grew out of his work on Looking for a Ship – which Emre and I both read recently. He also discusses the enormity of his twenty year undertaking, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about American geology, Annals of the Former World.
Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist’s matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor’s love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks – 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship’s power fails – hence annulling the compass and the radar – or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl’s biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: “The Visitor” and “Bitch” (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), “Madame Rosette,” “Death of an Old Man,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.,” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.