"Do you use the Internet? Then you have to read Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, one of the most important books of the year.”
Well, you heard Flavorwire! GO read it!
And read this great Q&A for more reasons why.
Let’s all think warm thoughts and start putting together our summer reading lists! Here, we’ll help you out: publishersweekly named THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE by Benjamin Black as one of its Best Books of Summer 2014!
HERE are the rest of the picks.
"On sleepless nights I would lie there doing the plot. Figuring it out. But I’d written nearly half of it before I said to myself, ‘John, you’ve got to figure out what’s going on.’ Which I discovered subsequently is what Chandler used to do. Chandler would be almost near the end before he would figure it out."—John Banville in Harper’s magazine on channeling Raymond Chandler in his newest, THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE
Read the whole interview HERE
Interview: Elizabeth Kolbert
I had the really good fortune to speak with New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert about her recent book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kolbert is well-known for her writings about climate change, and this book she ups the ante, linking that with mass extinction and drawing the line of causation in human history, and as part of the history of Earth. It’s a fascinating book that really offers of the big picture, cutting through all the bull and the hysteria and right into the rather depressing science.
I started by asking her how her work covering climate change come to include the history of mass extinction and, in particular, this new extinction as part of the broader topic.
EK: There are a couple different answers for that, but the basic answer is that I was going to write another book about climate change, but I came to realize that climate change was just partly related to an even bigger story, amazingly enough, and that was really all the ways that people are changing the world on a permanent, global scale. So I figured out a way to write about that, and this is what I came to, because the unfortunate side effect of all these ways that we are changing the planet is extinction.
But I also got to it via a somewhat parallel path. I was very interested in what’s come to be known as the amphibian crisis, this really terrible die-off of amphibians, quite marvelous amphibians, in many disparate parts of the world, which seems to be largely due to this fungal disease that has been transported all around the world. So I started on a quest to write about that, and those two threads together and I started to write a book, though it was still a long time before I figured out how to write the book.
J7: It seems the amount of traveling you did and the wrangling of information that you did for the project is pretty massive.
EK: The travel was part of the complexity of doing the book and definitely very time consuming, but part of the complexity was just that it’s such a big story, it’s so many things at once. Organizing it was very complicated, too. Both of those were very tough.
J7: Well, you’re taking what seem to be a bunch of different stories and showing that they’re really all one story, which is hard.
J7: And then you’re making the current events, what we’re living in, what is happening around us, part of a continuum of millions of years.
EK: I’d like people to come away with a pretty long view of the history of the world, the history of life and how it’s had several major crises. Our distant ancestors were around, but it was way, way before any one we would consider ancestors, really, was around. But the weird continuum, it works by analogy in some ways. What’s happening now is analogous to these great crises and the history of life, and those are a very, very hot, as it were, topic of research precisely for that reason, precisely because of what’s going on now. People are very interested in figuring out why life very nearly collapses at various moments.
J7: Did you focus on the amphibians first and move outwards, or did it make its own path?
EK: I wrote a piece for the New Yorker back in 2009 that was about the amphibians, and also in this weird, parallel way, you probably remember it if you’re from around here, when the bats started dying off. That all turned out to be the product of an introduced fungus, and I wrote a story that laid out some of themes that became the book. And then I had to figure out how to turn it into a book. That took a long time and, unfortunately, a lot of trial and error.
J7: In the coverage of your book, people always note, not necessarily in the presentation, but in the reality it presents, that it’s a gloomy, hopeless thing. How do you feel about that portrayal of the book?
EK: I like to believe the book is its own thing. There tends to be a conventional kind of shape that these narratives have where everything has to be redeemed at the end, that if we would just do x or y type moves and the reason that I’ve written it is to convince you to do x or y. This is way, way bigger than that. I definitely came to feel that x or y was going to be way too big to even describe, so it doesn’t have that usual shape and people are not wrong to say that it doesn’t end on an upbeat note. I pretty deliberately decided to do that.
J7: Of course, you are approaching it as a reporter covering a current event. If you were reporting on an uprising or war or an event like 9-11, it would be hard to put positive spins on those.
EK: Right, and there are all sorts of stories that you read that don’t take that positive turn at the end, and people usually say that it’s obvious why that’s the case, it’s a sad story. This is a sad story, too. In the case of 9-11, obviously, we and our friends, we weren’t responsible for it, but in the case of this story, we - and I use that term very, very broadly, all of us, every single one of us - depending on how many people there have been on the planet for the last several hundred years, or several thousand years even - we all have a teeny bit of the blame, and so I think that’s why this story gets to us in a slightly different way.
J7: The way you tell the story in your introduction, the broader story of man, it seems like this is what we’re inclined to do anyway, like it’s almost inevitable, or at least not suprising things turned out this way.
EK: I think that’s one way to read it, and that’s not invalid. One of the points that recent research has made pretty clear is that when people arrived in new places - and they could be very big places, because we know that when people arrived on islands, they wreaked havoc, Hawaii, New Zealand, places like that, but even when they arrived on continents, it seems pretty clear that they had a very significant effect on large animals that we just don’t have anymore in North America. There used to be a lot of really big animals on the continent. So, I don’t think we can say it’s just a product of modernity. Modernity is ratcheting everything up astronomically, but slowly but surely. These extinctions that took place when people arrived in a new place, they were very slow in terms of human lifetimes, over many, many generations, but in terms of the history of life, they were still very fast.
J7: And the process of extinction was done to other humans, as well. I’m thinking specifically of the Americas. There was a human toll to the activity, as well as an animal one.
EK: Absolutely. There are really interesting analogies when the first people reach North America, there was a pretty big wave of extinctions. Once again, it took quite a while in human terms, but it was a wave in ecological terms. When the Europeans reached North America, there was another wave. You can’t quite call it extinction, but many peoples, many cultures, went extinct, and they were some of the exact same forces at work. The diseases Europeans brought were absolutely devastating to Native Americans. They killed of millions of people. Not intentionally, even, but they did, because they were bringing together people who had been separated by an ocean for quite a long time.
J7: When you are out talking, do you ever encounter people who just can’t fathom the scope of what you are talking about?
EK: I actually think none of us can fathom the scope. We live in one place and see only a very small part of the world at any given time. I don’t even want to claim that I fathom the scope. I think the best that you can do is try to get people thinking about things in new ways. I’ve actually found people surprisingly up for that. I thought it would be a much harder sell than it’s been, really.
J7: How much of a part do you think science literacy plays into understanding these issues, just for the average person?
EK: I don’t know if it’s science literacy. Someone asked me a question the other day. Carbon dioxide levels are measured in parts per million, and now we have 400 parts per million, which is a pretty big milestone and not a good one, and probably levels have not been this high in millions of years. This person said that, ‘I have all these friends and they say, 400 parts per million, how can it really make a difference?’ Is that a question of science literacy? The answer of how it can make a difference is that it just turns out to make a difference. It’s an empirical fact. There’s this idea of our gut. We should realize by now that our gut instinct about thing is a very, very dubious tool to use. My gut instinct says that the sun revolves around the earth. My gut instinct tells me it’s impossible that the universe can be expanding. There are a lot of things your gut tells you just don’t empirically turn out to be true. In general, if you tell someone something about astrophysics or dark matter, they don’t say, ‘well, my gut tells me that’s not true, so it’s not true,’ you know? But somehow in these environmental issues people can follow their gut in this decision and it just doesn’t turn out to be the case. Is the problem scientific literacy, or is the problem a psychology that we trust our sense and our own daily experiences in ways that are not reliable, and that often people are not willing to look at the scientific evidence and make really informed judgments?
J7: You can see that at play in medical issues.
EK: Right, that might be a good analogy, when medicine tells us things that we don’t particularly want to hear.
J7: Or even with the anti vaccine movement, where a lot of people have personal anecdotes that they use to dispute actual data and evidence.
EK: Yeah, that’s unfortunately a really analogous situation.
J7: I’ve noticed when the media talks to you, they want you to predict what’s going to happen, they want to know how much time humans have left. Is that a burden to be asked that?
EK: I tend to be really frank with people and say, look, this is a book of reporting, I’m not a a) not a scientist and b) certainly not a clairvoyant. A lot of it depends on, there are a lot of variables here, some of which people are doing the best they can to assess, but some of which are unassessable, like what are we going to do, how much CO2 are we going to put up there? So it’s very, very hard to answer these questions, and life is unpredictable, so I don’t want to say that I can map out what’s going to happen. I really just present people with a very big picture sense of what’s at stake.
J7: The media has a tendency to approach people like yourself, who have spent time researching and writing about one particular topic, especially scientific and technological ones, as predictors of what comes next in that topic.
EK: Jonathan Schell, who just died unfortunately and was a great, great writer and reporter, he had this quote, which I quote in the book - ‘Futurology has never been a very respectable profession.’ It’s really true. On the one hand, obviously my book is very much about the future, it has a very deep, forward-looking component, but that we don’t even have to look into the future is the point I’m sadly making. We can just look around us right now. One of the real major points of the book is, look, if you can see this stuff happening, if you can a mammal, an amphibian, ten mammals, ten amphibians, hundreds, going extinct in the course of a human lifetime, something very, very unusual in the history of life is going on. That’s really the basic point of the book. How far is this going to go? Very hard to say, but we can already say, just on the basis of that, that this is a very, very, very elevated extinction rate that is happening right now. And everyone I went out with in the field had seen things either go extinct or crash, almost go extinct. People who are actually out in the field and watching specific animals, usually, they all have stories to tell about where you used to be able to go and find them, and how you don’t anymore.
J7: Do you find it’s a hard line for you to walk as a reporter? I assume you care about the subject and have your reasons for following it, but do you have to be careful to not become too much of an activist, as well?
EK: I don’t worry about that so much, because maybe I’m fortunate enough and I don’t work for a newspaper where that’s an issue. That was very much of an issue at the Times, but it’s less of an issue now that I’m at the New Yorker and I write editorials. I clearly wrote the editorial this week for the magazine, so my politics are pretty clear. But I don’t have an agenda in the sense of ‘Here’s my ten-point plan of what we should do.’ In some ways, I wish I had that ten-point plan, but I don’t, so I really do still have the journalist agenda that I think you ought to know about this. Some people would say to a fault. Why are you presenting this to us without a plan on what to do? Then I say, look, I’m a journalist, I’m not king of the world.
via The Toast
1. Everyone you know respects you. This disgusts you.
2. The door is white and the day is hot. This pleases you.
3. A Jewish man believes you are his friend. This disgusts you.
4. You are a man. A man! A man is a man like a tree is a tree.
5. A Greek man is shouting incomprehensibly at you. This is why you are drunk.
6. You have lost something in a war. This is why you are drunk.
7. A woman is looking at you. She is wearing her hat in a manner you find unbearably independent and mannish. You despise her.
8. You are standing on top of a mountain. The mountain admires you for climbing it. You do not care what the mountain thinks of you, and you light a cigar. The cigar admires you for smoking it. You sneer casually at the sun. Somewhere there is a white door.
9. You are shooting a large animal but thinking about a woman. You cannot shoot her. This infuriates you.
10. You met a homosexual once in Paris. It took you two years snowshoeing across the backcountry in Michigan to recover.
11. You have said goodbye to a young girl with a white face on a black train. You are ready to die.
12. Waiter bring me another rum
13. You hate every single one of your friends. You have no friends. You are alone at sea. How you hate the sea, but how you respect the fish inside of it. How you hate the kelp. How indifferent you are to the coral.
14. Your stomach hurts; that is how you know you are alive.
15. You are standing in a river and something is coming to kill you. You will welcome it with open arms and a booming laugh when it comes.
"That’s what humor is, it’s always the right amount of wrong."
You may remember her from such posts as our recent #tbt… now get to know Henry Holt senior editor, Serena Jones, in What Are You Reading/What Are You Working On!
What are you reading?
I recently read Alice Munro’s LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN, which was shockingly dull—a real disappointment, considering Munro is so beloved and of course, a Nobel Prize winner. Going a bit further back, I loved THE GOLDFINCH, which completely possessed and transported me and I’m sad to say other books since have paled in comparison. I did also love Stephen King’s DOCTOR SLEEP, which was surprisingly moving and absorbing. I’m about to read THE SMARTEST KIDS IN THE WORLD by Amanda Ripley, which is a book I wanted to buy as a proposal before it was preempted by S&S. And THE SIXTH EXTINCTION is on my nightstand.
What are you working on?
I’m currently working on a few different projects- Catholic scholar and commentator Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Pope Francis, sleep doctor Janet Kennedy’s book about getting your baby to sleep through the night, and longtime Holt author Michael Shermer’s book on how science makes society as a whole more moral.
“A thumping debut filled with sex, manipulation and a dash of romance. Wickedly dark and provocative, Sedition is a bold reminder that the thirst for power and status remains unquenched over the ages.” — Bookpage, Top 10 Pick for April
A big first week on sale for SEDITION! Besides being a top 10 pick for April by Bookpage, the long list for the prestigious UK prize, The Desmond Elliot Prize, was announced yesterday, and our own Katharine Grant was in good company!
See the whole list HERE and check out SEDITION for a sexy romp in the ages of the pianoforte!