In the old days of college science reqs—before the 1960s—economics was still the dismal science, and geology the dull one. Then plate tectonics began shifting the lay of the land. Geology got sexy. The New Yorker got a geology beat.

John McPhee spent fifteen years on it, mostly in the company of the hot new geologists called plate tectonicists, scientists who had to invent so many geoneologisms that McPhee called them “geonovelists.” McPhee himself stockpiled “palinspastic reconstructions,” “pulsating glaciers,” “discordant batholiths,” and “incompetent rock.” He wrote a tectonics tetralogy, saving “the far-out stuff … in the Far West,” “a leather-jacket geology in mirrored shades,” for last. Published a year ago, Assembling California is a seismic take on the “extensional disassembling of the earth” going on...


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