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Tabula Rasa: Volume 1 – John McPhee

by Venky

(Image Credit: Infinitebooks.org)

John McPhee turned 92 last March. He also finished penning his 32nd book soon after. A prolific writer of nonfiction, his indefatigable optimism towards his craft, and life in general, is given full expression by the fact that Tabula Rasa is titled Volume 1. McPhee calls this work an ‘old-people projects.’ The imaginative logic behind such a venture being, “old people projects keep old people old. You’re no longer old when you are dead.”  As ardent readers of his works, we fervently and faithfully wish that McPhee continues to age as imperceptibly as Gandalf so that we can have the pleasure of basking in his reflected glory that is a splendid assemblage of words!  

Tabula Rasa is an agglomeration of the unfinished. A paean to projects dumped halfway, stories that did not see the light of the day, and ideas that fermented robustly only to meekly fizzle out. The book is also a delectable mishmash of fuzzy memories and frazzled encounters. McPhee swears that he once met Ernest Hemingway across a table when on a Spanish jaunt. He also manages to incur the wrath of Thornton Wilder over lunch by possessing the temerity to question the prudence of a cataloguing project that would extend over a decade.  

Bemoaning the deluge of ‘time-outs’ in a game of basketball (one of his favourite sports), to satiate the insatiable demands of capitalistic sponsors, he writes, “time-outs in superabundance violate the spirit of the game, they turn coaches into puppeteers and players into puppets.” McPhee also randomly muses about the time spent in the company of some of the most rambunctious and egregious conservationists railing against the construction of ecologically unfriendly dams.  

The randomness attached to the events reflected in the pages of Tabula Rasa pay tribute to the vicissitudes, rigours, and the unpredictability of life. In recounting one particularly tragic episode, McPhee muses over a couple of his friends who urged him to accompany them on a Sunday skating mission. But McPhee’s mother insisted that he honour a commitment given to the Church. As fate would have it, both his friends (12-year-olds), perished in a calamitous manner when a sheet of ice gave way. When their small bodies were recovered the next day both the kids had their arms spread out in front.  

Many of the 50 short chapters are peppered and laced with an inimitable sense of humour. When World War II broke out, McPhee along with some other young boys and older women were trained to spot enemy aircraft in preparation for exigencies. Slides containing names and descriptions of aircrafts were shown to the potential ‘spotters.’ Describing the plight of some of the women, McPhee writes, “…. Mrs. Hall, Mrs.Hambling, they didn’t know a Focke-Wulf 200 from a white throated sparrow.”  

When pandemic forced McPhee to conduct his Princeton course (yes, he still teaches) via Zoom, he recounts some of the projects his students engaged in. One Ian McInnis of Virginia immersed himself in a book recommended by his girlfriend. The book bearing the interminably long and challenging title, The Art of Bundling: Being an Inquiry into the Nature & Origins of That Curious but Universal Folk-Custom, With an Exposition of the Rise & Fall of Bundling in the Eastern Part of North America, dealt with couples courting when fully dressed. In the words of McPhee, “it made a lot of sense if a country boy walked a distance from his farm to spend the evening with his girl, and thanks to bundling, did not have to walk home, often in snow, late at night. Shoes off, clothes intact, further, and separately wrapped in sheets, he and she spent the night in bed, sometimes in her parent’s bedroom.”

McPhee also introduces a plethora of new words, while not sounding pretentious at all in the process. Sample these: fricatives, uncatadromous, ophiolitic, prestidigitational, querencia, pallesthesia, schistose…….   These worlds might mean things delectable for a copy of one of the books penned by McPhee, Coming into the Country ended up being chewed to bits by a grizzly! Thankfully the trapper to whom the inscribed book was gifted to by McPhee was not part of that day’s menu!  

Tabula Rasa: Volume 2 – Bring it on!  

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