The renowned writer offers advice on information-gathering and nonfiction composition.
The book consists of eight instructive and charming essays about creating narratives, all of them originally composed for the New Yorker, where McPhee (Silk Parachute, 2010, etc.) has been a contributor since the mid-1960s. Reading them consecutively in one volume constitutes a master class in writing, as the author clearly demonstrates why he has taught so successfully part-time for decades at Princeton University. In one of the essays, McPhee focuses on the personalities and skills of editors and publishers for whom he has worked, and his descriptions of those men and women are insightful and delightful. The main personality throughout the collection, though, is McPhee himself. He is frequently self-deprecating, occasionally openly proud of his accomplishments, and never boring. In his magazine articles and the books resulting from them, McPhee rarely injects himself except superficially. Within these essays, he offers a departure by revealing quite a bit about his journalism, his teaching life, and daughters, two of whom write professionally. Throughout the collection, there emerge passages of sly, subtle humor, a quality often absent in McPhee’s lengthy magazine pieces. Since some subjects are so weighty—especially those dealing with geology—the writing can seem dry. There is no dry prose here, however. Almost every sentence sparkles, with wordplay evident throughout. Another bonus is the detailed explanation of how McPhee decided to tackle certain topics and then how he chose to structure the resulting pieces. Readers already familiar with the author’s masterpieces—e.g., Levels of the Game, Encounters with the Archdruid, Looking for a Ship, Uncommon Carriers, Oranges, and Coming into the Country—will feel especially fulfilled by McPhee’s discussions of the specifics from his many books.
A superb book about doing his job by a master of his craft.