Annals of the Former World
Goodreads ratings
4.35 / 5

"Annals of the Former World" Summary

By John McPhee

science | 720 pages | Published in NaN

The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion yearsTwenty years ago, when John McPhee began his journeys back and forth across the United States, he planned to describe a cross section of North America at about the fortieth parallel and, in the process, come to an understanding not only of the science but of the style of the geologists he traveled with. The structure of the book never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under the overall title Annals of the Former World.Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.Annals of the Former World is the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

"Annals of the Former World" takes readers on a geological journey across North America, exploring the complex history of the continent's landscape.


"Annals of the Former World" is a compelling non-fiction book by John McPhee that takes readers on a fascinating geological journey across the United States. Through vivid storytelling and detailed descriptions, McPhee explores the geological history of North America, delving into the intricate processes that have shaped the continent over millions of years. This book is a captivating blend of science, history, and personal narrative, offering readers a deeper understanding of the earth's complex and dynamic nature.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview

"Annals of the Former World" is a comprehensive exploration of the geological landscape of North America, presented in five interconnected parts. McPhee takes readers on a cross-country journey, examining the geological features, history, and processes that have shaped the continent. From the formation of the Appalachian Mountains to the tectonic forces at work in California, the book provides a rich tapestry of geological knowledge and insight.


The book's setting spans the entire North American continent, encompassing diverse landscapes, rock formations, and geological phenomena. Readers are transported from the ancient rocks of the Appalachians to the seismic activity of the San Andreas Fault, providing a panoramic view of the continent's geological history.

Main Characters

John McPheeThe author and narrator of the book, who guides readers through the geological exploration.
GeologistsVarious geologists and experts whose insights and research contribute to the book's content.

Story Points Over Chapters

Part 1: Basin and Range

In this section, McPhee travels through the rocky landscapes of Nevada with geologist David Love. Love's expertise and observations provide valuable insights into the geological history of the region, including the processes that led to the formation of the Basin and Range province.

Part 2: In Suspect Terrain

McPhee ventures into Pennsylvania and explores the ancient rocks of the Appalachians, unraveling the geological history and the forces that have shaped the mountains over time. He also introduces readers to various geologists and their interpretations of the region's complex geology.

Part 3: Rising from the Plains

Traveling to Wyoming, McPhee focuses on the geology of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. He profiles geologist David Love once again, delving into the geological processes that have uplifted the region and examining the Yellowstone hotspot.

Part 4: Assembling California

In this section, McPhee takes readers to California, exploring the diverse and complex geological features of the state. From the Sierra Nevada to the San Andreas Fault, he provides a detailed account of the tectonic forces at work and the geological history of the region.

Part 5: Crossing the Craton

The final part of the book delves into the ancient rocks of the Canadian Shield, offering insights into the formation and geological evolution of the North American continent. McPhee concludes the journey with reflections on the vast timescales and the enduring dynamism of the earth.

Main Events

  1. Exploration of the Basin and Range province in Nevada with geologist David Love.
  2. Unraveling the geological history of the Appalachians in Pennsylvania.
  3. Examination of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.
  4. In-depth exploration of California's diverse geological features and the San Andreas Fault.
  5. Insights into the ancient rocks of the Canadian Shield and the geological evolution of North America.

Themes and Insights


  1. Geological History: The book delves into the deep time scales of geological processes, highlighting the immense age and complexity of the earth's formation.
  2. Tectonic Forces: The powerful forces that shape the earth's surface, including plate tectonics, volcanic activity, and seismic events, are central themes in the book.
  3. Landscape Evolution: Readers gain an understanding of how landscapes evolve over millions of years, from mountain building to erosion and deposition.


  • The interconnectedness of geological processes across different regions.
  • The significance of geological time and the vast ages involved in shaping the earth.
  • The dynamic nature of the earth's crust and the ongoing processes that continue to mold the landscape.

Reader's Takeaway

"Annals of the Former World" offers readers a captivating journey through the geological history of North America, providing a profound appreciation for the earth's dynamic and ever-changing nature. The book's rich storytelling and insightful exploration of geological processes leave a lasting impression, inviting readers to view the world with a deeper understanding of its ancient and ongoing transformations.


John McPhee's "Annals of the Former World" stands as a remarkable work that seamlessly weaves together scientific exploration, personal narrative, and geological history. Through vivid descriptions and expert insights, McPhee takes readers on an enlightening journey, unraveling the mysteries of North America's geological landscape. This book is a testament to the enduring power and beauty of the earth, offering a profound perspective on the forces that have shaped the continent over millions of years.

Annals of the Former World FAQ

  1. What is 'Annals of the Former World' about?

    Annals of the Former World is a book by John McPhee that explores the geological history of North America through a series of road trips and discussions with geologists. It delves into the formation of the continent and the forces that shaped its landscape.

  2. Who is the author of 'Annals of the Former World'?

    The author of 'Annals of the Former World' is John McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer known for his works on geology and nature.

  3. What makes 'Annals of the Former World' unique?

    The book stands out for its combination of travelogue, science writing, and personal narrative. It takes readers on a journey through different geological formations while also sharing the author's experiences and interactions with geologists.

  4. Is 'Annals of the Former World' suitable for non-science readers?

    Yes, 'Annals of the Former World' is written in a way that makes complex geological concepts accessible to non-science readers. It is engaging and informative, making it an enjoyable read for a wide audience.

  5. Are there illustrations or maps in 'Annals of the Former World'?

    Yes, the book includes illustrations and maps that aid in understanding the geological features and processes discussed in the narrative. These visuals enhance the reader's comprehension of the geological concepts presented.