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10 Best John McPhee Books (2024)

Best John McPhee BooksFounder of Creative Nonfiction

John Angus McPhee is a household name for bookworm families. He is an American writer of non-fiction and he is regarded as one of the founders of the creative nonfiction genre. He was so successful in his field that he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction a whopping four times and he did receive the award with his fourth nomination titled Annals of the Former World.

McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey on March 1931. His father was a physician at the athletic department of Princeton University. He grew up in his hometown and after graduating from Princeton High School, he foreseeably graduated from Princeton University. He did, however, attend a postgraduate year at Deerfield Academy and studied for a year at Magdalene College of the University of Cambridge.

Still Respected Today

The writer worked as a juvenile panelist on the TV program Twenty Questions as he was going through his Princeton University years. He then worked for the Time and The New Yorker magazines respectively and made a name for himself. His name as a journalist is still respected today, signified by the fact that he received the George Polk Career Award in 2008 for his extensive and invaluable set of contributions to American Journalism.

Best John McPhee Books

Coming Into the Country


All About Alaska

To give you a good idea about the author I will be talking about today, I decided to start off this article with one of the best selling books by John McPhee. As it is signaled in the title, this piece is a natural expedition of sorts. It is best described as a travel book but the writer also includes the history and culture of the wild state of Alaska as well as vivid, brilliant descriptions of the environment and its people.

The book is practically divided into three parts. The first part has us tag along with the author as he explores the unpopulated, wild areas of Alaska using canoes. He and his crew -some of them from very respectable backgrounds- dared to survive completely by themselves. The second chapter is a little more reader-specific, it talks about the state-wide attempt to change the capital of Alaska. There is a lot of politics so this part may not be for everyone.

Stories From The Wilderness

The third part of the book is my favorite by a big margin. In this chapter, the author moves to the small town of Eagle on the coast of the Yukon River. He basically goes around the town and interviews everyone he comes by. It was fascinating to hear the stories and experiences of all those people, or at least some of them. Coming Into the Country has a sure place among the best John McPhee books.

Encounters with the Archdruid


Meetings With Nature-Harmers

Encounters with the Archdruid is another one of the most popular John McPhee books and it will be the second piece that we will go over in this article. It is a rather old work as it was published over fifty years ago, in 1971. It talks about three different journeys of the author into the wilderness. It is also a piece with heavy biographical themes as the stories are mainly about the author’s meetings with potential nature-harmers.

McPhee hikes through the Cascades with a mineral engineer looking to do some work in the area, he meets with a resort developer on the Cumberland Island and camps outside with him, and he takes a dam builder for a thrilling raft trip through the Great Canyon. You might imagine these meetings as some sort of rivalry but they are closer to a mindful and sensitive debate with the aim of finding the proper course of action.

A Senseful Series of Conversations

The critical part of these stories is that they are all set in the middle of nature. The arising hardships ask for both physical and mental collaboration which then turns into mutual respect. The author does not want any of the projects to go into motion but he states that if they are inevitable, he would want those people to build them given they are thoughtful enough. This piece is undoubtedly a great contender for the best John McPhee book title.

The Control of Nature


Nature is Won, Not Given

After two great pieces, we will now take a glimpse into one of the top rated books by John McPhee. It tells us a story of both nature and nurture. More accurately, he talks about the countless battles we as humans waged against our environment and he picks out some of the most enormous ones. While doing so, he puts a lot of emphasis on the science and engineering used in these struggles as well as their consequences.

The writer gets the idea for this piece as he is working on a previous book titled “Rising from the Plains”, the fourth book of his Pulitzer winning series which we will get to after this piece. A limestone etched with the words “Strive on–the control of Nature is won, not given.” standing near the engineering building at the University of Wyoming draws his attention. The words stick with him and lead to the writing of this book.

Changing The Current of Life

The biggest source of inspiration for this book is undoubtedly the Atchafalaya river. See, Mississippi’s deltaic plain has a natural cycle of changing currents. When the majestic river was about to shift from its present mouth to the Atchafalaya river, major industries depending on Mississippi were in grave danger. As such, in an act of ignorance, a dam was built to the Atchafalaya. Besides this, the book also includes struggles against erosion and even volcanoes.

Annals of the Former World Series


The Legacy of McPhee

The time has come for us to talk about the best John McPhee book series, Annals of the Former World. I think of this series as the legacy of the author despite the fact that it is neither his most popular nor the best rated work. Yet the fact that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the series is enough accomplishment of its own. In fact, three of the writer’s four nominations for the Pulitzer Prize were for this series.

The best John McPhee series is made up of five books but it is worth mentioning that the last book is a collection of the previous four with the addition of a small chapter titled “Crossing the Craton”. I am guessing that by now, you must be pretty curious as to what the series is about. Well, it is a very detailed geographical and natural account of the fortieth parallel north since the formation of Earth, 4.6 billion years.

Well Informed and Simply Told

For those of you interested, the fortieth parallel north starts at New York in the East, spans through ten other states including Utah and Indiana, and finally reaches Northern California in the West. McPhee travels with acclaimed geologists through this plane and explores the extensive pasts of these regions as well as the craft and personalities of the geologists. He does so with a simple tone and an utmost reign of knowledge over the subject.

Draft No. 4


Everything He Learned and Mastered

Halfway through our John McPhee book list, we will take a look at one of the most interesting pieces of the author titled Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. It is the latest published book by the author as it was published less than ten years ago, in 2013. As you can probably get from the title, it is a book in which McPhee talks about his writing process and choices.

Even though the author mostly talks about his own experience, this piece can also be seen as a writing guide for non-fiction. He shares everything he learned and mastered throughout his career in the form of witty but quality essays. He talks extensively about the writing course he gave at Princeton University for quite a number of years as well as the successful writers that he helped raise in the course.

Enjoyable Experiences and Witty Humor

The writer also does not hold back from getting into the logistics of his craft. He offers us extensive insight into the tone, structure, and diction of a proper writing. On top of that, he talks about his most loved books and inspects the quality of his writing. These invaluable pieces of information on top of the author’s enjoyable experiences and witty humor make up for one of the best John McPhee books.

The Pine Barrens


Wilderness in the Heart of Overpopulation

Next up on our list of the best books by John McPhee, we will go over a simpler piece titled The Pine Barrens. The title of this piece might mean something to those from New Jersey, this is because it talks about the wild and mostly uninhabited lower region of the state which is known as the Pine Barrens since the seventeenth century. The wild area is larger than most national parks in the United States yet it is not known by many.

The wild area takes its name from the pine trees covering its sandy and acidic soils that are no good for anything other than being a pine forest. The book mentions how the developments around the area subjected it to shrinkage and the fact that it is largely uninhabited despite New Jersey being the most densely populated state in the United States. In that sense, this wilderness provides a beautiful contrast to the tight and stressful cities.

The Distinctive Folklore and Culture of Pineys

Besides the natural elements, the author also brings up the subject of “Pineys”. Pineys are the small populations of humans who have come to call the Pine Barrens their home. These people have their own “distinctive folklore” and culture. The author makes exploring these not widely known and largely misunderstood people one of the main focuses of his book. He provides us with information about both their culture and origins.



A Book About Oranges

Continuing on with our John McPhee book reviews, we will look into the book Oranges. You might be entertaining yourself with ideas on what this wittily named book talks about. After all, there are infinite possibilities with a vague title such as this. Well, I would hate to break your dreams but this book is about oranges. The fruit one. Still though, you might be surprised by how interesting you will find it to be.

Oranges was first intended to be a short and simple magazine article talking about oranges and orange juice. However, the writer came across so much information that he wrote this 160 page book without even intending to. And as I was reading through it, I was just glad that he had done so. There are just so much of intriguing bits and pieces of information along with a lot of beautiful sketches.

Endlessly Entertaining

The book talks about every aspect of oranges from the last individual orange baron of Florida Ben Hill Griffin to the French king Louis XIV who decorated the halls of Versailles with tapestries of oranges. To my surprise, there were actually multiple European monarchs who put a great deal of value on oranges. Also, did you know that modern Caribbean people clean their floors with oranges? You would, only if you read this endlessly entertaining piece.

Levels of the Game


A Single Tennis Match

Levels of the Game, one of the best rated books by John McPhee, will be the next piece that I will try and give you a taste of. I was really intrigued by this book when I learned what it was about and I think you will be too. It is a 160 page long description of a single tennis match. Second by second and hit by hit, McPhee narrates the match from start to finish.

The match in question is a semi-final match in the United States that took place in 1968 between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe. These two players were not much more than amateurs at the time so I would doubt that even watching the play was enjoyable. However, the author displays his brilliance with his every account of cross-courts, backhands, overhead lobs, and so much more.

Sheer Writing Talent

McPhee also talks gives us brief but meaningful clues about the players’ personalities and lives to keep things more interesting. He even goes as far as to list off the books that the players were reading. Funnily, Ashe wins both the match and this sentimental comparison. Levels of the game is a powerful contender for the title of the best John McPhee book thanks to the author’s sheer writing talent.

Uncommon Carriers


Tales of Many Ships

As we are nearing the end of our article, I will introduce you to another one of his odd themed but thoroughly enjoyable books. Uncommon Carriers, as you can guess from the title, is about the varying freight ships that the author got to know about through his own experiences and his acquaintances working aboard them.

Amazing Sketches

The book includes countless sketches drawn by the author himself as well as detailed accounts of his freight ship journeys. He talks about the times he attended a ship-handling school in the skirts of the French Alps, how we rode with Don Ainsworth as he carried massive amounts of hazmat tankers through Atlanta and all the way to Tacoma, and so much more.

Looking for a Ship


Last of its Kind

As the last piece on our John McPhee books ranked article, we will try and see what the book Looking for a Ship is all about. This piece tells us the story of the author following a friend on a forty-two-day journey across the Pacific in S.S. Stella Lykes, one of the last merchant ships in the United States. Of course, he does not hold himself back from exchanging tales with the crew.

He talks about the old timer captain Paul McHenry Washburn whose name sounds like he should have been born as an admiral a few centuries in the past, and the second mate Andy Chase. He gives almost inspiringly beautiful descriptions of the sceneries he comes across both in the ocean and the South American shores that they stop by which include Lima, Balboa, and Guayaquil.

Pirates and Seamen

The most enjoyable parts for me though were the sections about the pirates of our day and the stories of the crew that I mentioned above. Apparently, pirates frequently come aboard ships during mealtimes to look for easy-to-sell items and the crew members simply “did not sign anything that said they would defend the ship with their lives. The tales on the other hand are just fascinating glimpses into another way of life.

Final Thoughts


John McPhee is a natural treasure in the field of nonfiction writing. His awards or titles may not lead you to believe that but his ability to make even the most boring of ideas into thoroughly enjoyable books should. Undoubtedly, his works have changed the literary culture of our day in significant ways and inspired countless artists. It would be a loss for any book lover to not know his name or read his magnificent books.

Michael Englert

Michael is a graduate of cultural studies and history. He enjoys a good bottle of wine and (surprise, surprise) reading. As a small-town librarian, he is currently relishing the silence and peaceful atmosphere that is prevailing.