As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?”
Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this month’s column, extinctions and their multiple causes lead me down a winding path.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Holt. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780805092998. $28. SCI
The Panamanian golden frog has all but vanished. Its doom came in the form of a fungus that was spread around the globe by human intervention, perhaps by the export of frogs for pregnancy tests, or the export of frogs for food. However it occurred, it is now sweeping through various frog populations, decimating their numbers. The few golden frogs that remain are tended to in a lab. The scientists that study and care for them hold a vain, and reluctantly acknowledged, hope that one day the frogs might be reestablished in the wild—a wild now blanketed with the fungus. Such stories are repeated in New Yorker staff writer Kolbert’s finely achieved and gripping account of the sixth extinction that humans have caused and are witnessing this very moment. From coral reefs to the great auk, human beings, through our unique capacity to interfere deeply in the world around us, are wiping out species. In the process, as Kolbert convincingly makes clear, we are triggering an extinction event of unknown extent that will inevitably include our own species in the fallout. In this rapidly moving account, which is rich in story, description, and reflection, Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change) explores past extinctions and meets experts who have their own light to shed on the future. Her smart, detailed, and clear writing, combined with her practical and forthright approach, enhances what is already a compelling story. While Kolbert ends on an upbeat note, acknowledging that the same human drive that has caused the sixth extinction is also the one that has saved the condor and the bald eagle and continues to preserve other species, it is hard to read her survey, as engrossing, engaging, and wittily written as it is, without deep feelings of loss.
Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. Touchstone. 2001. 352p. ISBN 9780743203982. pap. $16. SCI
Scientific investigations are grand mysteries with many possible culprits, plenty of red herrings, and ambiguous justice. In her account of the 1918 global pandemic, science writer Kolata (Rethinking Thin) searches for the causes of a flu that swept the globe, claiming more American lives than, as Kolata frames it, both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Her search for what caused the flu and its source location takes Kolata on a fascinating, thrilling, and disturbing journey: backward in time to the site of other plagues, forward in time to the possibilities that a new pandemic flu could sweep across civilization once more, and deep into what is known, and not known, about the 1918 event itself. Her clear and wide-ranging account should please Kolbert fans looking for additional examples of smart, detailed, and explanatory science writing that is both rigorous and involving. From the trenches of World War I to the modern virologists seeking answers to the cultural fall out of the Black Death, Kolata casts a wide and fascinating net and presents her findings with clarity and verve.
Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. Scribner. 1997. 704p. ISBN 9780684827124. pap. $22. SCI
Fans of Kolbert who hope to find other evocative books of science and extinction that are at once witty and profound may enjoy Quammen’s work. One of the best parts of The Sixth Extinction is that readers have the opportunity to follow Kolbert as she figures out how both to explain extinction and to study it. Readers have the same opportunity with Quammen (Spillover) as he defines island biogeography, evolution, and extinction. Taking as his subject island life, Quammen explores the biodiversity and threats only possible in such an environment—from the Galápagos to Sicily. His vivid and engaging descriptions of his expansive travels, the experts he interviews, and the wildlife he seeks, studies, and recalls all evoke the best aspects of Kolbert and create a moving, descriptive, and vivid account of the tenuousness of nature and survival.
Winchester, Simon. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded; August 27, 1883. Harper Perennial. 2005. 464p. ISBN 9780060838591. pap. $13.99. HIST
Episodic, woven with story, riveting and expansive, Winchester’s account of the most massive volcanic eruption in recorded history may serve as a solid suggestion for Kolbert fans, as it offers the same wonderful mix of science and story as The Sixth Extinction and moves at the same engrossing pace. Indonesia’s Krakatoa erupted in 1883 and caused massive loss of life. Its shock wave circled the earth multiple times: tsunamis ravaged the shoreline, hot ash rained down on survivors, and tons of debris fell into the sea. The sound of the eruption traveled for thousands of miles, and the newly created telegraph lines spread the news even farther as people weathered the event (the dust cloud reached as far away as New York City). Winchester (The Map That Changed the World), like Kolbert, blends many different threads into this account, discussing geology and plate tectonics, cultural and religious tectonics, and volcanology. Also like Kolbert, Winchester knows how to write about hard science in fine and accessible ways.
Alvarez, Walter. T.rex and the Crater of Doom. Princeton Univ. 2008. 216p. ISBN 9780691131030. pap. $18.95. SCI
Readers might also become interested in mass extinctions themselves. For those readers there are many works to suggest, ranging from studies of the Permian extinction, in which 95 percent of all living organisms perished—such as Michael Benton’s When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time—to this account of the event that took out the dinosaurs. Kolbert features the work of Alvarez and his father in The Sixth Extinction, and while it was controversial, even dismissed, by scientists when it first appeared, it has since been confirmed and is widely accepted. Alvarez, based on elements found in a specific clay layer, proposed that a giant object (either a comet or an asteroid) crashed into the earth 65 million years ago and triggered both immediate and long-term fatal conditions. Upon first hitting the earth, the subsequent shock wave vaporized everything in its path in a matter of seconds, a path that crossed a continent. What was left alive suffered through an Armageddon of the skies as first searing heat and then an impact winter followed. Engaging, quickly paced, and vividly described, Alvarez’s work turns the science of extinctions into gripping reading.
Greenberg, Joel. A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Bloomsbury. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781620405345. $26. SCI
Kolbert’s exploration of extinction offers readers many avenues to explore but the most direct is the demise of species. Suggest Greenberg’s detailed account of the loss of the passenger pigeon to readers desiring a detailed examination of one species’ swift downfall. When Elizabeth I ruled England, passenger pigeons roamed the North American skies in numbers inconceivable in the current era. Billions of birds—enough, as Greenberg describes, to eclipse the sun for three days during one flight—ranged from the Gulf of Mexico far into Canada. One hundred years ago the last known passenger pigeon, a single bird kept in a city zoo, died, wiping out the species. Their destruction, as Greenberg accounts in his lucid, mournful, and deliberate explanation, came about because humans killed them, in ways both horribly inventive and methodical. His accessible work supports Kolbert’s contention of human’s role in other species’ extinctions and, while grimmer, serves as a notable extension to her survey. Readers might also enjoy Sharon Levy’s Once & Future Giants, a more academic but still accessible account of how humans helped to usher out megafauna (among them mammoths and mastodons). Also consider suggesting Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten’s A Gap in Nature, which offers illustrations of lost animals and short accounts of their history and path to extinction.
Newitz, Annalee. Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Doubleday. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780385535915. $26.95. SCI
Another direction Kolbert’s writing might lead readers in is theories of life after destruction. Newitz (editor-in-chief, i09) gives a fascinating tour of the last five extinctions before turning her attention to the possible ways humans can survive the inevitable sixth. With a lively tone and an accessible approach, she details how life has continued on despite cataclysmic die-offs, including the Permian, and how humans are uniquely equipped to find a way for us and other species to survive and even thrive, after the next. Her basic contention is that we must move around—particularly off-planet—that we must adapt our thinking to futureproof as much as possible, and, in a move that will hearten all readers, that storytelling is essential to our continued existence. Her riveting blend of science and speculation pairs well with Kolbert’s work and offers a bit more fancy and hope. Suggest as well Bill McKibben’s equally gripping Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. For a completely different thought experiment—what would happen if only humans died?—suggest Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us.
An Inconvenient Truth. color. 96 min. Paramount. 2006. DVD UPC 883929311323. $14.98. SOC SCI
This elegiac and absorbing documentary, lauded by many and pilloried by some, details the threat of global warming in an accessible, immediate, and gripping fashion. Former Vice President Al Gore is incisive and at ease as he runs through a slide show of facts, images, and projections accounting for the rise of CO2 and its consequential threat to humanity in the form of massive storms, rising oceans, species extinctions, and changes in global temperatures. Overlaid onto the slide show is an account of Gore’s political and personal history, including the contested 2000 election. Attracting great attention when it was released and winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary as well as a number of other accolades, this film will interest viewers of environmental documentaries; also consider the Leo DiCaprio film, The 11th Hour (2007).