“Table of Contents”

John McPhee

I’ve got quite the McPhee collection going, at this point; from the visual of the bookshelf, I think the only authors I have more of are Diane Duane and Tamora Pierce.1

A couple pieces in here that reminded me of “Control of Nature”—“Riding the Boom Extension” and “Minihydro” were both about people building infrastructure, though on a much smaller scale than usual.

There’s also a couple pieces that just felt like a great explanation of what John McPhee is right. The start and end of the book, even; we’ve got “Under the Snow,” which includes this great quote:

I was there by invitation, an indirect result of work I had been doing nearby. Would I be busy on March 14th? If there had been a conflict—if, say, I had been invited to lunch on that day with the Queen of Scotland and the King of Spain—I would have gone to the cubs. (Under the Snow, 4)

And doesn’t that just show his priorities? And then, ending the book with the story of meeting his fellow John McPhee—no, I will not elaborate—he’s also got some good lines:

On the ground as well as in the air, he does indeed some most in his element when he is out in the big woods, where he spends nearly all his wiring time and a good bit of whatever remains—“out in the williwags,” as he refers to the backcountry. A williwag, apparently, is a place so remote it can be reached only by first going through a boondock. (North of the C.P. Line, 256)

The largest one, the centerpiece of the book, was where I wanted to recommend this to a couple people I know. I’ll wait until they’ve finished med school, though, and have a bit more time for reading, although the contents of “Heirs of General Practice” may actually be a useful read when trying to decide on a focus.

Lastly, for me to mention at least, “Ice Pond” includes some names I recognize from prior research on different topics, and introduced a fascinating idea. I’ve seen discussion of thermal batteries—both the newfangled kind where you use silicates or molten salts to store heat, and the less-fancy kind where you use an insulated tank to store a lot of hot water until you need a lot of hot water.2 What was a new idea to me was building an inverse thermal battery, where you bank cold during the winter and use it over the course of the spring and summer. Fascinating idea!

As ever, I adore John McPhee’s writing, and I highly recommend it. Maybe not the best work of his to start with, but if I’ve sold you on his work before, give it a go!3

  1. This isn’t counting ebooks, of course, where my near-exhaustive collection of Discworld books gives Terry Pratchett a pretty unassailable lead.
  2. Yes, your water heater is a thermal battery! See this video for a long explanation of how that works, and this one for some discussion of why that’s a super useful way to think about it as we try to electrify more and more of our homes.
  3. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

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