Immersed in nature

Elizabeth Kolbert

Nicholas Whitman

As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert has reported extensively about climate change. Kolbert, who lives in Williamstown with her husband and children, comes to Boston March 17 to discuss her new book, “The Sixth Extinction” at Wellesley College’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities. The free lecture is at 4:30 p.m.

BOOKS: What did you read for your book that you would recommend?

KOLBERT: While I was writing this book, I taught a college class on nature writing. That was an interesting experience, to reread writers who were very influential for me and teach them. We read David Quammen’s “The Song of the Dodo,” John McPhee’s “The Control of Nature,” and Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire.” The most current is Quammen’s book, which is nearly 20 years old, but they’re all timely.


BOOKS: Have you read much earlier nature writing?

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KOLBERT: For this book I read Charles Darwin’s journals, which are a real window into his thinking. I’ve also read classics like “Walden” and a much more recent book, “The Meadowlands” by Robert Sullivan, which is a really interesting play on Thoreau. I would also recommend George Perkins Marsh’s “Man and Nature” as well as John Burroughs and John Muir, though these older writers can seem a bit dated now. Another great book is Rachel Carson’s, “The Sea Around Us,” which people don’t read any more.

BOOKS: What one book on the environment do you recommend the most?

KOLBERT: “The Song of the Dodo” but also a more recent book, “Moby-Duck” by Donovan Hohn, which is about the search for these toy ducks that fell overboard from a container ship. Another book I recommend a lot is Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature.” It turns out to be entirely prescient.

BOOKS: How do you read these books without getting depressed?


KOLBERT: One of the things that all these writers bring to it is a strong literary component. They write beautifully about beautiful places.

BOOKS: What have you been reading for pleasure?

KOLBERT: We’ve been trying to get our kids to read better books, and I’ve been reading along with them. We read J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” I really loved it. I also reread John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace,” which they thought didn’t make sense, but I liked.

BOOKS: Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?

KOLBERT: I read a lot of nonfiction for work. When I read for fun I usually read novels. Like everyone else I just bought the paperback of “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner. I like foreign literature. I recently read “Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me” by the contemporary Spanish author Javier Marias. He wrote “A Heart So White,” but I like this one better. I recently reread “Woodcutters” by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. He’s not easy to read, but it’s very impressive.


BOOKS: When you joined The New Yorker in 1999 did that affect your personal reading?

‘We’ve been trying to get our kids to read better books, and I’ve been reading along with them. We read J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” I reallyloved it.’

KOLBERT: I went through a phase of reading nonfiction to study the craft. I read all of McPhee, only a tiny bit of which I’d previously read. I recommend his “Annals of the Former World.” I read everything by former New Yorker writers Janet Flanner, who covered Paris, and Andy Logan, who wrote about New York City politics.

BOOKS: When you went to Greenland for your first story on climate change, did you take a book?

KOLBERT: Yes. “Arctic Dreams” by Barry Lopez, another book that I taught and really love. I read it in my tent on the Arctic ice sheet. I’ve never gone anywhere without a book. Even when I hiked into the Andes, I brought “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” by Mario Vargas Llosa with me, which I sometimes regretted because it was pretty heavy. I try to bring literature from where I’m going.

BOOKS: What are you taking on your book tour?

KOLBERT: Like everyone else, I take all the magazines I haven’t read, including The New Yorkers.


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