Thursday, February 25, 2021

Nonfiction Review: The Sixth Extinction

One of my books groups chose the nonfiction best-seller and Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for our February selection, and everyone in the group loved this fascinating and eye-opening book. We also had a great discussion about it.

As Kolbert explains in the book, scientists agree there have been five mass extinctions since life began on Earth, based on the fossil record. One of those, of course, was the most recent one that killed all the dinosaurs--and three-quarters of mammals--that is now known to have been caused by the impact of a large meteorite, but there are four other, lesser-known but no less devastating extinctions. Many scientists also agree that we are now in the midst of a sixth, and Kolbert shared the evidence of that--and what it means--in this book. She opens the book with a chapter about huge numbers and entire species of amphibians disappearing all over the world due to a fungus; I had no idea this was going on! One small village in central Panama went from having so many golden frogs in its region that you could barely walk without stepping on them to within a few short years, the only ones now left are in a small laboratory in the village made specifically for their preservation. In chapter 2, she goes much further back in time to the mastodon and reviews the history of how humans first began to identify bizarre-looking fossils and finally came around to the idea that extinction was a thing. In later chapters, she reviews the histories and futures of ten more species, everything from the now-extinct penguin-like auks to microscopic sea creatures rapidly disappearing and affecting coral reefs to bats in the Eastern United States to Neanderthals. And, of course, she discusses the role of humans: what we have done in the past and what scientists around the world are doing now, in desperate attempts to save some species.

I was worried this book might be dry, but ... wow! It is very well-written, with the author integrating her own experiences in researching extinction into the book, as she travels to places like Panama, Iceland, Peru, and a tiny island near the Great Barrier Reef. In each place, she talks to scientists who are studying the past and working hard to preserve the future, against terrible odds. She combines history, science, travel, personal memoir, and some scary looks into the future. It's engrossing, fascinating ... and yes, terrifying, too. Yet despite the frightening subject matter, the author somehow makes the book engaging and even entertaining. Everyone in my book group loved the book (lots of 8's, 9's, and 10's for ratings), and we had a great discussion on Zoom.  It's a book that everyone on earth should read, to understand what is happening in the natural world today. Highly recommended.

269 pages (plus notes, bibliography, and index), Henry Holt and Company

You can get a brief overview of the book and its science in this CNN interview with Elizabeth Kolbert:

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, from the book's Prologue, and/or download it from Audible.

 

You can buy the book through Bookshop.org, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local:  
 

Or you can order The Sixth Extinction from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


6 comments:

  1. It would never occur to me to pick up this book, but you make it sound really interesting.

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    1. Same! I heard about it, of course - it was everywhere when it first came out - but it didn't sound at all appealing to me. But she's an excellent writer, and it was so engaging - she deserved the Pulitzer!

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  2. We read it for book club, too. We had a fabulous discussion. The book was so eye-opening.

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    1. Yes! A perfect discussion book :)

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  3. I like books like this...at least the parts that look to the past. For the same reason I don't like dystopian sci-fi futuristic novels, I don't much like reading about doom to come--although if it's well-written and not just fear-mongering I will muscle through.

    Definitely putting this on the TBR list.

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    1. Interestingly, although the situation IS dire, she doesn't focus on doom and gloom, nor even much about the future. It's mostly about the past and present, and in each of her chapters/interviews with people, she focuses on what they are doing NOW to try to help. She lets the facts speak for themselves, without any fear-mongering.

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