The latest collection of essays by quintessential New Yorker writer John McPhee includes some of his most personal writing to date.
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“My Life List” also offers an occasion for tongue-in-cheek portraits of McPhee’s fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier and the magazine’s legendary late editor William Shawn. Inspired by his long relationship with The New Yorker, “Silk Parachutes” features a good bit of shop talk, most notably in “Checkpoints,” in which McPhee chronicles the exacting and often hilarious lengths to which New Yorker fact-checkers will go to verify the accuracy of reporting. One such exercise involved phoning someone in London and dispatching him to Fitzroy Road to double-check that a blue ceramic plaque honoring William Butler Yeats was, in fact, blue and ceramic.Skip to next paragraph
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Another essay, “Season on the Chalk,” records a characteristic McPhee outing, using travelogue to explore the peculiar chalk geology “below the English Channel, under much of northern France, under bits of Germany and Scandinavia, under the Limburg Province of the Netherlands, and – from Erith Reach to Gravesend – under fifteen miles of the Lower Thames.”
McPhee often proves an engaging travel writer, and he works hard to distill complex science for the layman. But geology being what it is, the subject matter requires the reader to at least meet McPhee halfway. Unless one shares McPhee’s passionate interest in the topic, sentences like this will be tough sledding: “At the Paleozoic-Mesozoic stratigraphic boundary, there is no known deposit of extraterrestrial platinum-group metals, nor is there any other form of evidence of an asteroid impact.”
“Rip Van Golfer,” another essay, takes us inside a golf tournament featuring Tiger Woods, who’s become a regular in the tabloids since McPhee wrote the piece. Woods’s personal travails, copiously followed in the blogosphere and on Twitter, point to a media culture in which McPhee’s tradition of journalism, so fastidious and fair-minded, seems suddenly old-fashioned.
How long the McPhee tradition will endure is anyone’s guess. But for now we have “Silk Parachute,” a testament to a kind of literary journalism that will, with any luck, have both its standards and at its standard-bearer around for years to come.