Considering John McPhee…

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a New York Times Magazine piece on writer John McPhee….

I first heard of writer John McPhee [pictured above] back in 1982. A friend of mine had gone to journalism school in New York City and, gave me the gift of a book called The John McPhee Reader.

While I very much appreciated the gift, I cannot say I appreciated McPhee. I found his writing to be a bit dull and plodding. Funny coincidence: a website I write for recently asked me if I would review McPhee’s new book, Draft No. 4I declined, telling them that I was not an admirer of McPhee’s writing and didn’t want to subject his many fans to what would probably be a negative review.

Anyway, my writing friend Peter Wilson recently forwarded to me a New York Times Magazine piece on McPhee, commenting that he, too, wasn’t a McPhee fan.

But while the author of this piece, Sam Anderson, merely reinforced my view of McPhee’s writing, I found the piece itself to be delightful and engaging. Here is the very first paragraph, which won me over with its fine bit of figurative language at the end:

When you call John McPhee on the phone, he is instantly John McPhee. McPhee is now 86 years old, and each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access. I was calling to arrange a visit to Princeton, N.J., where McPhee lives and teaches writing. He was going to give me driving directions. He asked where I was coming from. I told him the name of my town, about 100 miles away. “I’ve been there,” McPhee said, with the mild surprise of someone who has just found a $5 bill in a coat pocket.

Perhaps the message is you can enjoy reading about McPhee even if you don’t appreciate his work.