All writers have false starts. We once stuffed them in manila folders and pushed them deep inside our desks; now we store them in a different kind of folder. But we still rarely give up on them, harboring a shameful hope that someday we’ll perform freelancer’s CPR, breathing new, sellable life into them.

If you’re John McPhee, longtime New Yorker staff writer, author of 31 books and nonagenarian statesman of what’s often called longform journalism, you can collect these abandoned projects into a book. “Tabula Rasa: Volume 1” is a charming, breezy collection of reminiscences about projects that didn’t make it, ideas that never got fully baked, research never written up, either because the subject died or because McPhee, who was born in 1931, lost interest along the way.

McPhee has never been a huge seller or a household name, but among other writers he’s almost unanimously revered. For me, his desert island books include “The Headmaster,” about Frank Boyden, who ran Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts for more than half a century, and “Heirs of General Practice,” about backwoods doctors in Maine. And I always enjoy a reread of “A Sense of Where You Are,” his breakthrough 1965 profile of basketball star and future senator Bill Bradley. These are masterpieces. So it’s reassuring to know that, like us mortals, he has unfinished business.

In “Tabula Rasa,” we learn that McPhee never got around to writing about the abandoned ranch house in his neighborhood that he suspected might be a safe house for spies. He never wrote the profile of a blind skier. He long meant to do a takedown of basketball timeouts, which have proliferated to serve the needs of TV advertisers; instead, he squeezed out the crabby, three-page broadside in this book. “Time-outs in superabundance violate the spirit of the game,” he writes. “They turn coaches into puppeteers and players into puppets.” While he once “intended to research this subject and do a potent brief aimed at reform,” he decided “these notes are brief enough.”

He’s right. Few of the subjects discussed in “Tabula Rasa” call out for the longform treatment; McPhee’s instincts (and editors) steered him well. But there are still pleasures to be had in these 50 short chapters. Minor league McPhee is still major league writing. It’s not faint praise to say he is still more pleasingly consistent than any other writer working. There is never a dud metaphor, never a cliché. In this whole book, he stuck his foot out and tripped me only once, when, celebrating his Princeton students’ writing during pandemic lockdown – the great chapter title is “Zoom Laude” – he describes a pupil’s essay about a Passover Seder in which “her sister chants the Dayenu.” The “the” is as inappropriate to “Dayenu” as its absence would be in California highway nomenclature (“the 405,” “the 101”).

When McPhee introduces you to new words, he’s not showing off, just helping you make a new acquaintance. In a chapter about a trek through Spain that never became a planned travel piece, I learned “peristyle.” In a chapter about a California river delta, I met “polder.” It’s especially delightful to be stumped by a new word because, reading periodicals today, one so seldom is. McPhee is a magazine writer – nearly all his books began as pieces in the New Yorker – from an era when it was no crime for a writer to have a larger vocabulary than a reader. It made me wistful to think about the permission he was given, the sense of prerogative.

At points in “Tabula Rasa,” I almost saw the man himself, but just almost. He is a famously modest writer; throughout his oeuvre, he’s present, a winsome guide, but about McPhee himself one gets only facts (the Princeton boyhood, the early career at Time magazine, daughters), never feelings. And no vulnerability. So to read his closest-to-the-bone stuff here is to wish he’d had even more courage of self-disclosure. I’m thinking of the chapter “December 19, 1943,” about boys who died on an ice-skating trip he was supposed to go on, or his description of the faux pas that nearly destroyed his budding career, when he submitted an essay to two rival publications at once. These are really painful memories, and in telling them McPhee collapses the distance between man and métier as he rarely has before.

There’s an autobiography in here, one that McPhee, reticent grandee that he is, probably considers it beneath himself to write. I’m a reporter, one can imagine him thinking, not a sappy navel-gazer. No eating, praying and loving for him. But if nonfiction writers got the credit fiction writers get, McPhee would be Cormac McCarthy-famous. Of course, McCarthy didn’t say much about himself, either. But McPhee is still writing. He still has stories to tell. Maybe they’re just not the ones he had the good sense to let go.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.” He is the director of open learning at American Jewish University and is writing a biography of Judy Blume.

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