Searching for the end of the bookshelf and the belt line with K.M. Zahrt
Since Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History was published in 2014, it has been recognized as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (2014) and has won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (2015), yet I still won’t believe the book exists, and even if it did, it would take so long to read, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
That’s the kind of attitude you’d have to have in order to come away from Kolbert’s book without understanding the basic scientific evidence that strongly suggests two things: (1) our planet is trending toward another mass extinction — you know, that thing that did in the dinosaurs once and for all; and (2) it’s very very likely that the destructive behaviors of one species, in particular, will take to its grave, come hell or high water (oh, it’s coming), the largest piece of the root cause pie along with most (if not all) other species.
Which nefarious species, pray tell, you’re probably wondering, is the culprit species?
I’ll give you a hint: It’s the only species known to make pies — a delicacy most likely baked by a heat source generated, somewhere along the line, from the burning of a fossil fuel that yields composition-changing fumes into the planet’s oceans and atmosphere.
This isn’t a spoiler for The Sixth Extinction, nor a judgement decried by it, because deep down, if you keep digging deep enough, like the scientists and researchers Kolbert visits, you’ll find within your own experience some sort of awareness that these ideas exist, are potentially right, and are probably dangerous in the long-term (so eat pies now; there won’t be any left after the next extinction).
Kolbert expertly takes natural history laypersons, like myself, and walks us through the process of the scientific discoveries that formed the foundations for the notions of evolution (pre- and post-Darwin) and extinction, as we are generally familiar with them today. It turns out it wasn’t that long ago, in the grand scheme of existence, that these two ideas — like, for example, the belief that the globe was less like a flying carpet and more like a floating ball — were both unfathomable. And maybe, since we’ve understood that sailors aren’t in danger of sailing off the edge of the Earth for several hundred years now, it took us that much longer (within the last two hundred years) to figure out that entire species could, in fact, disappear.
“Uh, no duh. Like, if we can’t fall off the Earth, nothing can.”
Today, evolution and extinction seem like easy enough conclusions to draw, but it took the hard work of many thinkers across the globe decades to put all the pieces together. And, Kolbert illustrates how the layers of various theories, like a snowball rolling downhill, had to accumulate in order to get us to our current understanding. In doing so, Kolbert forces us to consider our existence from a long-zoom perspective as situated in the context of the historical development and the potential future development of homo sapiens — a perspective that, if nothing else, helps bring us back down to Earth every once in a while.
Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge, by contrast, is situated in a more recent context between the bursting tech bubble of the ’90s and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Come to think of it, some interesting similarities to Kolbert’s book could be drawn when considering the evolution and/or extinction of species such as new technologies and technology companies. They certainly do come and go. And — like cassettes, VHS tapes, car phones, tube TVs, you name it — this book came and went.
In a lot of ways, Bleeding Edge reminded me of AMC’s short-lived series Rubicon. Traditionally reliable source for good entertainment with intellectual engagement: check. Complex modern mystery to be investigated and/or solved: check. All signs pointed in the right direction. But, like the millions of viewers who slowly abandoned Rubicon over time, Bleeding Edge struggled to hold my attention. Was the plot too complicated or not complicated enough? I don’t know; it’s complicated…
One thing I appreciated about Bleeding Edge was the way in which form matched the content. (Perhaps by now we’re too familiar with the idea that new forms have been exhausted, or seem redundant regardless, and/or we — author and reader — simply don’t give a damn: “Just give us an abstract of the plot line, so we can get back to filling cyberspace with small bits of useless personal data that is extremely important to prevent from getting into the wrong hands — looking at you, NSA.” I did contemplate for a moment if it would be worth making such a joke knowing that this blog post will now ding NSA’s system somewhere. Then I thought, Maybe we’ll get more web traffic this way. And, now, you’re thinking, This has gotten way off the rails. In fact, this is all very Bleeding Edge.) Focused on the tech industry, as you might expect, the language you’ll find is filled with absurd acronyms, type-based slang, and a minimalist’s lifetime supply of shorthand. At age 78, Pynchon clearly remains a shrewd observer of language in practice.
Books Read: 12 (Change: +2)
Books Given Away: 35 (Change: -1)
Pounds Lost: 6 (Change: -2)
If honesty is the best policy, here goes: In the weeks since our last encounter, I relinquished ground in both Books Given Away and Pounds Lost categories, but I won’t make excuses for it. On September 15, 2015, Mary Karr, perhaps our nation’s preeminent memoirist, released a book entitled The Art of Memoir. How was I going to be able to resist a one-click pre-order on that one? It’s only one click! And, it’s been a crazy two months, too crazy to get to the gym. We, here at The Fly Came Near It, have been busy launching Selected Writings from Michiganders Post, Vol. 2, 2014-15 and preparing the Fall 2015 issue of Old Northwest Review for publication (due out in early November). And, I’ve been working my brain off, trying to get the finishing touches of my next novel finalized. All the while, the family and I have been doing are darnedest to enjoy the beautiful fall weather in Michigan before it deteriorates into winter (boo!). That means taking weekend trips to orchards for cider and donuts and attending fall weddings with delicious dessert spreads. Did I mention I also had a birthday in there? (But you already knew that, I’m sure. Thanks, Facebook!) And, birthday = cake. But, as I mentioned, I won’t make any excuses. Gotta keep at it.
Until next time, folks…