Famed Author John McPhee’s New Book Looks at His Writing Projects

Celebrated writer John McPhee has offered in-depth explorations of diverse subjects such as the Pine Barrens, Alaska and oranges. The Princeton resident takes a different tack in Tabula Rasa: Volume 1.

Writer John McPhee
John McPhee's writing covers his wide range of interests as well as gives glimpses into his personal and professional life. Photo: Yolanda Whitman

In nearly three dozen books, celebrated writer John McPhee has offered in-depth explorations of diverse subjects such as the Pine Barrens, Alaska and oranges. The Princeton resident takes a different tack in Tabula Rasa: Volume 1 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), out in July.

Cover of the book "Tabula Rasa: Volume 1" by John McPheeThe book is a collection of 50 short pieces, ranging in length from a paragraph to 12 pages, with an underlying connection. The intention of Tabula Rasa, Latin for “blank slate,” McPhee writes, is “to describe in capsule form the many writing projects that I have conceived and seriously planned across the years but have never written.” 

McPhee’s writing reflects his eclectic interests, from science to sports, engineering to entertainment. Along the way, he offers glimpses into his personal and professional life.

The wryly titled “Zoom Laude” describes the pandemic’s impact on his students and teaching methods at Princeton University. “The Dutch Ship Tyger” begins with the burning of a 17th-century merchant vessel in the Hudson River in 1613 and how it led to the publication of his first story in the New Yorker years later. 

“December 19, 1943” is a powerful autobiographical sketch on the thin line between life and death and a childhood forever changed by one day’s events. 

The use of “Volume 1” in the book’s title indicates 92-year-old McPhee is planning a sequel. In “The Moons of Methuselah,” he admits to another motive: “The project’s purpose,” he writes, “is to keep the old writer alive by never coming to an end.” 


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