I messed up my numbering last time, so let’s go back and backfill. Vincent Bugliosi is still occupying a disproportionate percentage of my readingness, but there are two others now – including possibly the best book I’ve read this year:
Book #46: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
When I got this book, I was expecting more of a “zombies have eaten us, how do the cities rot?” style of prose… And in that, I was disappointed.
In case you haven’t heard, “The World Without Us” is a book on what would happen to the towns and cities and savannahs if all the human beings disappeared one day. The reason behind our disappearance is not given – could be the rapture, could be plague, could be aliens Hoovering us up into a spaceship.
The core question that World Without Us attempts to answer is, “What will humanity’s legacy be once we're gone?”
As an apocalyptic reference guide, it’s not big on detail. There’s a brief two chapters on how houses disintegrate and a fascinating but all-too-short chapter on what happens to New York City after we go (short version: they pump tens of millions of gallons of water out from under the city right now to keep it stable, so there’d be a flood in less than a month followed by toppling skyscrapers).
What I got, however, was something much richer and deeper. Something I’d recommend to anyone.
Weisman understands that the only way to show what the world is like without us is to show how we’re impacting the world right now. I got into a brief argument with someone whose take on global warming was, “We’re so small, and the Earth is so big, there’s no way we could affect a whole planet, so global warming is bunk.”
Weisman makes no predictions on global warming (the data isn’t conclusive enough for him to forecast whether we’ve hit a tipping point or not), but he does persuasively show how the sheer numbers of humans are affecting the whole planet in drastic ways. He talks about how much thicker and wilder forests used to be – the fairy tales weren’t just made to be scary, the trees and bugs and predators in the woods used to be a lot denser before we cut the good stuff down and isolated the woods between cities and suburbs. And he shows us glimpses of those good old days by traveling to demilitarized zones, the only places where humans really don’t go on a regular basis, and showing how quickly life grows back.
The fascinating thing about The World Without Us is how it strikes a delicate balance between terror and wonder. Weisman knows how tenacious life is, clinging on in the most bizarre of locations, and he knows life will survive somehow. You can’t help but be struck with awe at how efficient life is, adapting to anything.
But at the same time, a lot of non-human life is having a hard time making it in the wake of humanity. You can see how much easier things would be for the planet without us, and how much harm we’re doing in our search for short-term comfort. Weisman doesn’t talk about apocalyptic scenarios of total collapse, since he trusts that life will adapt… But at the same time, the time scale it’ll take before the Earth recovers from what we’ve already done to it is staggering.
The thing is, there’s no haranguing. Alan’s remarkably dispassionate as he talks about what we’ve done and what would happen if we stopped right now, because he’s not trying to chide anyone; we’re already gone, so “convincing” anyone isn’t a part of the book.
Still. His discussions of plastics are terrifying; they were designed to be impenetrable by bacteria, resistant to corrosion or breakdown, and that’s why we love using them. But at the same time, all that plastic is being launched into the oceans, and the same qualities that make it awesome for keeping your milk stored make it something that isn’t going away. Eventually, bacteria will learn to eat plastic, but that’s gonna be a couple of million years off.
The damage we’re doing is our legacy.
Oh, there are cool “failure” scenarios, too. He discusses nuclear reactors, and what will happen if nobody’s at the helm, discussing Chernobyl in detail. He discusses Africa, and what species will come out on top once we’re yoinked off the top of the food chain. And we find out, fascinatingly, that the cockroach will not survive well; a tropical insect, it subsists off of our year-round heating habits, and most of the North American ones will die out in the first two or three winters.
It is, in all ways, a well-thought-out book. It changes the way you’d think. I’d recommend everyone take a look at it.
Book #51: How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman
I was really looking forward to this one, but it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. I spent the first ten years of my life working with doctors, first as an answering service operator and then as a medical transcriptionist, so I know that doctors are often making shit up as they go; I wanted more detail on “how.”
This book, while interesting, is like several episodes of “House” but without the witty dialogue.
What I wanted was a real breakdown of the ways doctors went about diagnosing people, followed by a chart of the most common errors and the signs to look for. But this is a much less scientific tome, discussing doctoring as an art, showing via stories how doctors can lead (or mislead) both patients and themselves.
I suspect that if I thought of doctors as Gods, this could be revelatory. As it stands, this was really neat, but a little thin on detail for me; I would have appreciated more concrete advice on how to get your doctor to diagnose you properly. That information is here, but it’s stored in a bunch of anecdotes.
It’s good stuff. Just not as new as I would have liked.