This is Ode To…, a weekly column where we share the stuff we’re really into in hopes that you’ll be really into it, too.
In 2019, escapist beach reading ain’t what it used to be.
Sure, you could bring a tangled whodunnit or a twisty YA romance paperback on your summer vacation. But with the world on fire, millions of species winking out of existence, and climate change barreling towards us like the unwanted approach of September, those kinds of reads may start to feel a little bit like literary privilege. It’s legit to chill out on the sand, but to bury your head in it, not so much.
Still, no one — even the most dour of climate scientists — should take nonfiction on our current global crisis to the beach. Pack something like The Uninhabitable Earth, and you’ll only turn yourself into the family grump, reading out endless statistics of doom. The ocean, the mountains, the forest: These are places to fall in love again with the novel, with the beauty of well-turned phrases, with a narrative as deep, slow, and rich as the landscape. It’s where we recuperate and rest and rediscover our spirit, all the better to face what comes next.
Luckily, there’s a novel out in paperback this summer that covers all these bases: The Overstory, last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, by Richard Powers. It’s an accessible, wonderfully twisty, big-picture, heart-rending narrative about six people who eventually meet up and form the strongest of bonds, only to scatter to the winds. It has heart and history, war and psychology, and a virtual videogame that is everything Second Life should have been.
At the same time, The Overstory makes the Lorax look like an inept PR guy. It speaks for the trees — and for everything that flourishes in their ancient shadow, like us — with such incredibly delicate force that you barely even realize you’ve just received an education in, and a pep talk for, the natural world.
I’m no tree guy myself. Like a couple of the characters at the heart of the book, I can’t tell a yellow birch from a black cherry. Sure, I knew it was important that we don’t cut them down, that we plant more of them, that they inhale carbon dioxide and could help us out of our current jam. But I couldn’t tell you why old growth forests matter so much, or how to build an insta-forest at home (leave your backyard be, and one will spring up, a book within the book advises), or how the chestnut and elm died out, what was lost when they did, and what could be regained when they return.
It’s not that the book stops to give you pop quizzes; it’s that deep, soulful, perspective-shifting information from the world of trees is woven skillfully into the narrative like a bespoke rug.
And for all that depth, the story often barrels along at vertiginous speed. Some stories spend entire chapters over a breakfast table or on a shopping trip; The Overstory will skip ahead decades without warning. Perhaps no novel gives you such a 30,000-foot view of the ravages of time on human beings. Ancestors and parents and siblings of our viewpoint characters are casually, cruelly, and accurately tossed aside, particularly in the early chapters, no matter how desperately we care for them.
I can promise you’ll be bawling by the end of chapter 2 — which features a boy fleeing from Mao’s China, the invention of one of our most important gadgets, and a genuinely riveting tale of a National Park vacation — and I can also promise you it gets better.
If you’re the type to underline and triple-underline memorable passages, better bring a few pens. Nuggets of Ent-like wisdom drop like acorns. Here’s one of about a thousand favorites: “People have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”
Lines like this will turn you into the family sage, rather than the family grump. And that’s the other thing: The Overstory is the kind of book you want to proselytize for, to press into the hands of friends and relatives. My first reaction on finishing it: Wow, forget the Gideon Bible, they should put a copy of this in every hotel room.
That may never happen. But if you take my advice and take this book to your vacation location, and if you get past the first few chapters and start to reconnect to a certain rich, natural depth within your soul that you thought had been crushed by your work life, then my work here is done.