Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.
In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Description taken from Goodreads.
In my first review in this three-part series of the Stanford summer reading list books, I said that I don’t believe awards constitute great writing. Great writing constitutes great writing. When I found out that The Sixth Extinction was a Pulitzer Prize winner after reading it, I thought about whether or not the book deserved it (in my limited opinion), and I’ll tentatively say that I believe it does.
First of all, I agree with the decision to make incoming college students read accessible and relevant nonfiction. Second of all, I agree that this was a pretty compelling choice.
Do I think that the story fits into the supposed “sense of hope and optimism amid extremely challenging circumstances”, as is spoken of in the article announcing the three books for this year? No. Personally, I didn’t feel that in The Sixth Extinction, mainly because I don’t think the book was too concerned with conveying that hope in any meaningful way. Rather, if there was any genius to be found in Kolbert’s novel, I believe that it was in the decision not to convey that belief that everything will somehow work itself out.
Instead, Kolbert chose to show us the world that humans wanted and that humans built. In that backwards way, this book fits perfectly into this year’s theme of sustainability and equity, and it’s indispensable to the conversations that Stanford students will have about this topic this coming school year. I’d be quite interested to see the kind of discussion the book could generate because while Kolbert did an excellent job of researching, collecting data, and clearly presenting and proving her ideas, I missed the insight that could’ve been there on a smaller level. Instead, insight was provided only at a very broad scope. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there were truly fascinating subjects that Kolbert talked about and explained with relatively little personal input on the details, almost leaving the response to the whim of the reader. I can’t speak to whether this approach is common in nonfiction or if it was even intentional–I believe it was. Regardless, it was more new to me than not and I was initially disappointed by it, but I came to the conclusion that it was a good way to open up the reader to new ideas, new thoughts, and greater reflection.
The one point I do hold against The Sixth Extinction is how slow it was. Kolbert is a journalist by trade and all of her chapters read like individual articles that were linked together as those in a series would be. Like articles in any magazine or newspaper, some of them were phenomenal and some of them were terrible. They all pretty much had the same premise and structure to them, but there were chapters that were dry as the desert. If you’re dead set on reading every word of this book, then I would suggest you take it one or two chapters a day every day until you finish. If you’re not so attached, I would recommend completely reading the first page of each chapter and seeing if you want to skim from there.
Overall, I think Stanford made a solid choice with The Sixth Extinction. You would be hard-pressed to find another book that so elegantly and so brutally celebrates the beauty of this world we live in and the terrible truth that we’re destroying it more and more every day. Would I recommend it just for the joy of reading? I can see myself doing so, if only to another avid fiction reader who wants something different, thought-provoking, and of substance. 3 stars.