Thursday, March 3, 2016

reading about earth 39,000 feet above it




I bought The Sixth Extinction on a whim. That morning, I had finished reading the staggering Far From the Madding Crowd, and though I usually like to sit for a while with a book finished before I choose a new one to read, I faced a six-hour plane ride from my sister's back to California (and that's not including time sitting at the gate). I couldn't let that time be wasted.

So, an hour or two before I was due at the airport, my sister and I drove through the rain to the quaint local bookshop we'd already been to once that weekend so I could choose a new book and not have to take a risk on the selection in my terminal. I looked at memoir, then at the new books table, asked the cashier about a book I especially wanted to read (they didn't have it), then found myself in the Science section, and there it was. I'd heard of the book and had some interest in reading it, and then, a few weeks ago, had seen the book selected as No. 1 Nonfiction Book on the Guardian. (It's not clear to me if this means it's their top choice, or if it's simply the first one they chose to feature.) Because I'm a sucker for reading list selections and the shiny gold Pulitzer Prize emblems (and, yes, because I'm a nerd), I decided to go for it.

I read a good chunk of the book on that flight home a few weeks ago, and slowly finished it over the days since. What I liked about The Sixth Extinction - and, as a medical science writer, what I appreciated about it - is that the author presents a complicated subject that has lots of subjective and controversial arguments surrounding it in a simple, accessible and relatively unbiased way. There is a narrative to it, the main character being the earth itself, and centuries of species the supporting cast, their appearances and disappearances adding to the central conflict. That conflict is support and survival. Humans are just another of these species, thankfully not the villain. They are all fighting time, catastrophe, decay.

But the thing about the book is this: for me, it might not be that memorable. I enjoyed it while I read it - it was lively, and Kolbert's language was concise, resourceful, beautiful - but I didn't find myself thinking about it much after I put the book down for the night, or on my drive to work the next morning. It didn't move me emotionally. It didn't get me to think differently or to wonder. (Though it did make me want to travel to the Great Coral Reef or the Amazon, so there's that.) I know this wouldn't have fit with her as a writer or what she was trying to do with her book, but I think what would have made me more emotionally engaged is more reflection - like, what does all this mean? Or at least, what does it mean to her? After reading the book, finding myself not emotionally involved in her topic, I'm not sure it means all that much to me.*


*I also understand that this is because I don't "believe" in science. Like, I don't think it has the final say. I think there's lots of room for mystery. So, it might not be the way she wrote the book. It might just not be my cup of tea.

(Readers - you may or may not have caught on that I've been writing posts about the books I read, a tiny effort of mine this year. Not a book review. More a response in words.)

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