Books for Readers
Newsletter # 95
June 10, 2007
I’ve just finished an excellent best selling nonfiction book, COLLAPSE by Jared Diamond. The last third was a little harder to get through– maybe it was that I prefer the collapse of ancient societies to learning about present day declining fisheries, bleached coral reefs, poisoned streams, and clear-cut rainforests. But the message was like a blast of antihistamine for a stuffed nose: the collapse of societies has happened before, due to many factors almost always including destruction of resources, and we’re facing possible collapse now on a world-wide scale unless we change our ways. This is not new news in 2007, but Diamond’s clearly reasoned delineation is excellent.
It somehow reassures me that human beings have been causing environmental change, both neutral and catastrophic, for tens of thousands of years. It isn’t that the earth was pristine or people kind to the soil and air and plant life up until fifty years ago. The Norse Greenlanders, for example, despoiled their little corner of the world in the 1300's in a multitude of ways, and failed to learn lessons that might have saved them from another group of immigrants, the Inuit. The Easter Islanders, immediately after the high point of their statue building and complex religious cults, cut down the last of their trees, and their population dropped to almost nothing with an extremely low standard of living. Diamond also discusses the fall of the Mayans and the Anasazi in the Southwestern U.S. Often what he records is how political hubris (especially the ambitions of the warrior classes trumping the interests of farmers) has often been destructive.
There are, however, lessons to learn and models for changing our ways. There have been positive reversals of destruction that came both from grassroots efforts and from above. In Tokugawa Japan, the shogun saved the forests by decree; in the New Guinea highlands, the people 1200 years ago saw their land deforested, and, individually and in small groups, collected plants, experimented, and reforested. China is an environmental mess, but a sign of possible hope is how the government did stop population growth. Individualistic Montanans are beginning to see they need government regulation to save their land and their life style. Excellent book.
And, for something completely different– I read my first Harry Potter! For my birthday, my son Joel gave me HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (which had a title with much more sense of history in the UK: HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE). HARRY was, as Joel said, an incredibly easy, fast, and fun read. One of the things that strikes me about wildly popular books and movies and games is that they usually have a lot of delightful surface innovation and spectacle but a dependable, conventional heart. And, of course they have skillful storytelling. The plot here includes the ever-dependable oppressed childhood followed by spunky new kid at school, complete with mean girls, or in this case, mean wizards. There are supportive friends and a nemesis plus mentors and guides for the hero’s quest. All of this is totally obvious, which is to take nothing away from it, because it all works together and is clever without being jokey. Also, as my son pointed out, Rowling is great on names: Draco Malfoy indeed! A monstrous guard dog called Fluffy.
Finally, I want to mention a memoir that has been getting good reviews in the New York media, THICK AS THIEVES. It is by a former student of mine, Steve Geng, and I was delighted to have a walk-on in the final pages. Steve writes about a difficult life and serious illness in a way that is raw and sharp. He has lived on the edge, hustling, stealing, selling and doing a lot of drugs. The special hook of the story is that while he was living a hustler’s life in New York City, his much-admired older sister was in the same city writing for THE NEW YORKER magazine. Their relationship is sustaining but difficult, and the story of his reconciliation with his retired-military father is touching. The real strength of the book, though, is how directly and energetically, but without romanticizing, he shares the highs and lows of his life. Part of his honesty is a grand joie de vivre even after all he’s been through: and he does not deny the pleasure of jazz, sex, drugs– all of his experiences. He manages to show a life that he is not proud of, but that was lived with gusto. Had he not contracted AIDS, had he not hurt people, inevitably lost the bounce-back of youth, you wonder if he might not have continued boosting and shooting up for the rest of his life. The description of his big fall after eight or nine years of sobriety is excellent and believable. As one reviewer remarked, Geng knows that under the same circumstances he would likely have done it all again. I wonder of the rest of us are ever so honest.