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End of the Universe?

New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert makes the unthinkable entertaining in The Sixth Extinction.

By - Mar 6th, 2014 01:52 pm
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

Elizabeth Kolbert’s entrancing nonfiction work, The Sixth Extinction, packs a wallop and leaves a sting. Her dissection of a predicted loss of thousands of species of plants and animals is masterful and disturbing. If you have put off thinking about possible future calamities, perhaps this book will help you get your head out of… the sand and galvanize you to action.

Today, it is commonplace to discuss global warming or endangered species, sometimes at the top of our lungs. There was a time, however, when these concepts had the scientific community roiling with controversy. These often abstract terms have achieved currency through the efforts of generations of scientists, amateur naturalists, and writers of every stripe. This international struggle for understanding of our origins, impact, and survival gives The Sixth Extinction its drama and ultimately, its tragedy.

I must confess I seldom read nonfiction for pleasure. Decades of graduate courses and class preparation have made me long for the escape of creative writing. Nonfiction, however, has evolved in the last decades to become every bit as creative as the best fiction. If you are a fan of The New Yorker’s long-form essays, you may recognize Elizabeth Kolbert’s name as well as her distinctive style. In the course of The Sixth Extinction, she covers several million years of Earth’s history and traverses thousands of miles in researching its future.

Synthesizing all this information into a coherent and entertaining whole is a daunting task, one that Kolbert perform with grace and élan. I am a good guinea pig for a book like this, because my eyes glaze over at the first mention of the Cretaceous period or the demise of the dinosaurs. Kolbert not only kept me going through some extremely difficult material, she entertained and inspired me, as well.

In the first half of the book, Kolbert weaves a convoluted, but eventually engrossing tale of how scientists figured out the extinction of the dinosaurs and the subsequent appearance of humans. It is difficult going at times, but I was able to persevere to the payoff – the first five extinctions! The second half of the book takes place in the present and deals with researchers on the cutting edge of climate change and species preservation. Kolbert makes their work seem like a crusade that you must cheer for and support.

For some readers, the second half of the book may have the meat you crave and the first part may endanger your progress to get there. For that reason, you may wish to read the beginning chapters and then move to part two. When you finish it, you will want to go back to part one for the foundational information that makes this story so amazing. If you do have a natural affinity for this subject, please read it as Kolbert intended. The option to read in a different order is one advantage that nonfiction has over fiction.

Like her fellow New Yorker writer, Malcom Gladwell, Kolbert has a great gift of taking complex information and arranging it in a way that the non-expert can understand and appreciate. The Sixth Extinction is a masterful explanation of humans’ place in the world’s history and the crucial moment we inhabit today. You will want to make a commitment to work against the predictions in this book, but you will never forget the people who are on the front lines fighting the sixth extinction.


Upcoming area Book Events:

Friday, March 7 (7:00 PM): Michael Parker, author of All I Have in This World with Murray Farish, author of Inappropriate Behavior: Stories at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Saturday March 8 (2:00 PM): Denise Mina, author of The Red Road at Boswell Book Company.

Sunday March 9 (11:00): It’s Story Time with Jannis! This month, Jannis will read from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, and a few more titles along the theme of wild animals. Start practicing your ROAR!! and bring your favorite stuffed animal (bonus points if it’s a tiger!). Fun for ages 18 months and up at Boswell Book Company.

Sunday, March 9 (2:00 PM): BURDOCK Magazine/Radio presents: Amanda Huckins, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Freesia McKee, and David Press at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001

Tuesday March 11 (6:30 PM): Shorewood Public Library event with Kathy Reichs and Brendan Reichs, authors of Exposure: A Virals Novel.  Cosponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday March 11, (7:00 PM): Nickolas Butler, author of “Shotgun Lovesongs” at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, March 12 (7:00 PM): Cara Black, author of Murder in Pigalle at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, March 12 (6:30 PM): Little Read Book Club: Discussing Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. Call (414) 774-2665 to register.

Thursday, March 13 (7:00 PM): “United We Read” featuring UWM creative writing grad students and faculty: Kara van de Graaf, David Bowen, Soham Patel, and Lane Hall at Woodland Pattern Book Center.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!


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