The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

In a haze of literary-based madness a month ago, I decided I would read each of the books on the Guardian ‘100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time’ list, from 1-100. Not only would it stop me dithering about which book to choose next, but hopefully it would mean that I’d pick up (and enjoy?) a book I would never normally read. I have a tendency to ignore nonfiction, assuming it’s less entertaining and satisfying than its more imaginative sibling, fiction. Cue The Sixth Extinction.

Now, I haven’t actually finished this yet, but I can already tell how brilliant a book it is. If you’re not the sort of person to delve into nonfiction or science either, hopefully I can change your mind with this!

The thread and argument of the book is how the earth is currently progressing through the sixth extinction, five major extinctions having happened in the past (the one which killed off the dinosaurs being one). Species are becoming extinct, habitats are being destroyed – and mostly as a result of human influence. As Kolbert journeys around the planet documenting the changes that are occurring, we follow and observe the sights she does – the dying coral reefs off Dead Tree Island, heaps of diseased bats in New Jersey, the changing rainforest in Peru, searching for the golden frogs in Panama and fossils on a rainy Scottish highland.  As each chapter passes, there is a developing sense of how deeply felt – and tragic – our interactions with the natural world are.

I know this sounds pretty bleak – and in some ways it is, but Kolbert manages to lift it from being a dreary essay into an entertaining exploration (it did win the Pulitzer Prize, after all). She writes not only with intelligence but with humour as well, and I have no doubt the rest of the book will be as good as the half I’ve read already. It’s pretty easy these days to sort of shrug off environmentalism – generally we all know doing this is bad, doing that is better – but Kolbert really manages to make you care about what’s going on. And I think that’s a pretty amazing and powerful thing.

Next up on the list will be The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, the story of a year of grief, caused by the sudden death of her husband in 2004. It is described by the Guardian as an ‘unforgettable tour de force’, so tune in for the next review to see if I agree!


(Posted by R.L, Rugby Library)