John McPhee, Draft No. 4

I've read lots of John McPhee--everyone should read lots of him--but not nearly enough. Unless you happened to be among his fans, or a regular New Yorker reader, he's been invisibly central (if you can be such a thing) to the explosion of book-length quality creative nonfiction over the last four decades.

Draft No. 4 is a wonder, growing loosely from his lectures at Princeton on the subject of writing, but really being a modular collection of nonfiction exemplars that also tell the stories behind many of his articles and books. For a fan, or a very patient non-fan / McPhee neophyte, there's a great deal to learn, and possibly a lot to enjoy as well. (If you want a detailed review of the book, here's an excellent one.)

Mind you, it's boggling to read about McPhee's articles for the New Yorker, just for the sheer length of them: 13,000 words on Wimbledon; 60,000 words on nuclear materials in private industry; 17,000 words on college basketball player Bill Bradley; 80,000 words on something McPhee NEVER EVEN NAMES, using it only to make a point. Apparently there aren't only cartoons and art gallery listings in the New Yorker?

It's a goddamned treasure, this book, even if it's only for old people like me (who could, though, be of almost any actual age). The name-dropping is a treat, the vignettes and anecdotes are delightful, and there are lessons aplenty for serious writers and readers.

It might help if you really enjoyed reading, among other things and only for example, other McPhee books like Oranges; Coming into the Country; Assembling California; or Basin and Range.

But it'd be a more readerly, writerly culture if we could all spend a little time with John McPhee's Draft No. 4. I hope you'll consider it.


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