Tabula Rasa: John McPhee

Retirement projects are completed as a final act. Better to let them linger.

And yet, last year, celebrated longform writer John McPhee, who has published dozens of books and hundreds of articles for New Yorker, published his retirement project: Tabula Rasa, a collection of essays that chronicle stories he never completed.

Contrary to most of my reading of late, I didn’t take many notes. The whole book reads as a light treatise on life, with his wit and wording. A few points that stood out to me now:

  • From Draft No 4: “Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title, with one of their own, is like a photo of a tourist head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong”
  • In 1967, he published a book on and called Oranges, which came to define his style: irreverent longform that dabbled in reportage and writerly cultural assessment
  • He developed a friendship with Bill Bradley, after writing a celebrated New Yorker profile and follow-on book
  • Of pharma copywriters, he notes: They create catchy brand names and unnecessarily complicated generic names so it’s harder to market after a patent expires