Sometimes the rabbit hole of the Internet leads back to one’s own bookshelf of hard copies.
Over the weekend, Ken Caldeira (@KenCaldeira) circulated a link to an interview with journalist Caspar Henderson on FiveBooks: “Caspar Henderson chooses books on Growing Up in the Anthropocene.” I’ve always been envious of other people’s Top Five lists, and of the apparent ease with which my friends (and strangers, and fictional characters) can generate them. Henderson’s selections—and the topic around which he organized them—caught my attention, and I thought I might offer a few Anthropocene reading recommendations of my own. These are books that turned me on my head when I read them. These are books that still inform my thinking, my scientific curiosity, my writing. And in the past year, when students have asked me what they should read, these are the books I’ve urged them to find:
- The End of Nature (Bill McKibben) – I read this in my sophomore year at Williams, in Prof. Karen Merrill‘s “History of US Environmental Politics” course. And I cried. McKibben (@billmckibben) hit the reset button on my recollection of every landscape I’d ever set foot in, and has made me reinterpret—or at least question—every landscape I’ve set foot in since.
- Thirteen Moons (Charles Frazier) – Meticulously researched, Frazier’s protagonist recounts a history of witnessed landscape change spanning the early 19th century, including the complete transformation of Cherokee Nation lands after 1830.
- The Lost City of Z (David Grann) – Brain candy. Grann (@DavidGrann) chronicles British explorer Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 vanished into the Amazon. Fawcett was convinced, despite overwhelming scepticism (and outright dismissal), that the Amazonian interior had once supported a large and centralized civilization. If you’re packing for a trip, A Voyage Long and Strange and Blue Latitudes, both by Tony Horwitz (@TonyHorwitz), are particularly good companion reads. And for the epilogue, see Michael Heckenberger’s paper in Science.
- Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Elizabeth Kolbert) – I also urge you to find the original triptych, “The Climate of Man – I, II, and III,” which ran in The New Yorker in 2005. There is no finer reporting on environmental science and politics than Kolbert’s, and her writing on climate change, especially, is some of the best in print.
- The Control of Nature (John McPhee) – Flood control on the Atchafalaya River; hosing a lava flow to a halt in Heimaey, Iceland; and debris basins in the San Gabriel Mountains. Several years ago, I tried with mixed success to teach this book in an English class of 16-year-olds, who were unconvinced that reading non-fiction was something they enjoyed doing. I’m always tempted to try teaching it again – an Anthropocene classic.
- Dirt (Dave Montgomery) – A concise but comprehensive treatise on soil degradation and erosion, with archaeological, historical, and present-day examples from around the world.
- Cod (Mark Kurlansky) – Is cod the quintessential Anthropocene fish? Kurlansky’s excellent pescelogical biography was published a few years before Alec Wilkinson’s profile of lobsterman and MacArthur Fellow Ted Ames in The New Yorker, but they dovetail, retrospectively. Check out Ted’s recent paper in Fisheries Research, too.
Happy reading. Tuck in.
Cheers – EDL