Picks and Pans Review: Basin and Range

updated 06/29/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/29/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John McPhee

He studied "what is now referred to as the Old Geology" in high school some 30 odd years ago. Now McPhee, that prodigious accumulator of expertise with the short attention span, has decided "to learn some geology again...to sense if possible how the science had settled down a decade after its great upheaval...when people began to discuss continents in terms of their velocities." McPhee assembles the "Big Picture" (as geologists call it, not self-mockingly) from his usual mountain of colorful, fine-grained facts. One learns that salt deposits and oil migrate underground; a lake "is by definition a sign of poor drainage"; cyanide may be one of the building blocks of life. The facts accumulate into a picture of a constantly changing world. Yet even McPhee's precise prose struggles to make comprehensible things like the creation of the Atlantic Ocean. Leaving out illustrations under the circumstances seems snobbish. But McPhee's 15th book, his most intellectually challenging since The Curve of Binding Energy, may change the way you think about at least two things. Rock will seem like buttery stuff that can be "folded up like wet laundry." The Himalayas, for instance, squirted up when India smacked into the rest of Asia. And the span of a human life will vanish within the earth's 4.5 billion years, like a single molecule of water in the ocean. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10.95)

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