In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series Professor Sean Lovelace recommends Coming into the Country by John McPhee.
Author John McPhee is a technician, from the micro to the macro. He is a meticulous architect, with a keen emphasis on structure, but he’s the type of designer that bends the boundaries, a Frank Lloyd Wright, even more a Zaha Hadid, or a Gehry. McPhee once wrote an entire book about oranges, using the fruit itself—from seeds to flesh to unraveling rind—as his structure. He later wrote an essay on Atlantic City; using a Monopoly board as his scaffolding (the streets and railroads of Monopoly are actually located in New Jersey). So I recommend the nonfiction text, Coming Into the Country, not only for its majestic subject (Alaska), but for its technical mastery.
McPhee divides Alaska into three sections, using geography as his structural cue. The first section is titled, “The Northern Tree Line,” and explores the truly wild (as in unpopulated by humans) rivers (McPhee is an avid canoeist and tends to find his way onto the water for most of his books) that meander below the Arctic Circle, the Brooks Range. The second section is “In Urban Alaska,” an examination of Anchorage, Juneau, and all of the nasty, political machinations behind the sudden influence of oil, oil money, and a 1974 debate on relocating the capital (It remains in Juneau, as we know). The final section, “In the Bush,” conjures up the mythical Alaska, the Yukon, gold fever, sled dogs, Eskimos, an Alaska we are supposed to recognize (though, of course, we know little to nothing).