The Million Year Walk

~ Basin and Range by John McPhee ~

My wife is reading this book on my recommendation. First she tried it aloud with the kids but my eleven-year-old daughter was wilting with boredom, so now she reads it alone. I loved Basin and Range. It’s a rare geology title that one makes a mental note to read a second time, and I intend to still. Below is a review I wrote several years ago of McPhee’s little masterpiece.

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It was a winter’s day of 2011 and I was the man walking all over San Francisco with a pillow under his arm. It was the wrong kind of pillow and I needed to exchange it. I got a few looks aboard the train. I suffered a few comments at the office too. But the lunch-hour march down Townsend Street was the worst part: a wind in the February style, shin splints from a hard pace, slanting rain in the eyes, and mud puddles for sidewalks through an industrial sector of the city.

Then there were the art students, twenty or thirty of them, squinting from the tips of their lit cigarettes near the Academy campus. They parted like waters for Moses to watch the bourgeois thirty-something pass on his incomprehensible errand.

I thought of what I’d read that morning in John McPhee’s Basin and Range. “On the geologic timescale,” McPhee writes, “a human life is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about.” Infinitely briefer, then, and far less worth consideration, was my present discomfort.

McPhee expands on the idea by quoting a geologist friend:

“If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”

Looking round at the train tracks, the warehouses, the built-up terraced hills of the city, for a moment I saw the place through a lens of geologic time: I walked atop the Cambrian seabed in clouds of groping arthropods; I was wrapped in folds of cooling rock; I was buried in volcanic ash and thrust above the surface of the waters.

Before my eyes the city resolved into a work of humanoid insects, a temporary beeswax hive. There were eons still to roll over it, full of unpredictable transformations. My own consciousness was reduced, by a weight of years that smothered sensible regret, to the briefest electric spark of dream in one immemorial night.

I came to the shop where my misbegotten purchase had occurred a few days before. A man in round, frameless glasses helped make my exchange. He had a gray goatee and a pleasant voice. Ten minutes later I passed through the crowd of staring students again with an apparently identical pillow under my arm, like someone on his way to a slumber party at an address he cannot find.

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Talleyrand

~ Talleyrand by Duff Cooper ~

Duff Cooper, who wrote this book in the 1930s, delivers the story of Charles Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand’s life in the sort of buttery prose that could make a 400-page biography of a bachelor librarian a pleasure to read. The materials of Talleyrand’s life, however, are several cuts above standard. Eldest son of a noble family who was crippled in childhood and superseded by his younger brother, Talleyrand was a famous libertine and gambler, an archbishop who never wanted to be a priest, and arguably the greatest statesman of his generation. He somehow managed to serve France in high positions under the revolving regimes of the Revolution of 1789, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire of Napoleon, and two successive restorations of the Bourbons – all the while amassing ill-gotten wealth, being excommunicated by the Pope, marrying, gambling, siring illegitimate children, carrying on indecent love affairs, making himself indispensable to kings and emperors, and impressing everyone he met with his urbanity, wit, conversation, and sage counsel in diplomatic affairs. Cooper’s argument is that despite accusations of Machiavellianism and his undoubted personal ambition, Talleyrand was in fact a man of consistent public (if not private) principles, who strove in all his appointments for the greater peace of Europe and the better relations of France with her neighbors. The story, like the man, is consistent and complex, and the conclusion of it all (the chapter titled ‘The Last Treaty’ about Talleyrand’s final reconciliation with the Church) I found surprisingly moving.