Nov 7, 2019 mini book reviews books

Mini Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Alright, so this one is interesting. It’s entirely about trees — at the beginning, before everything comes together and they all wind up utterly intertwined, the characters seem completely unrelated and independent save for some random connection to trees. It’s almost as well-written as All the Light We Cannot See, probably the most beautiful book I’ve ever read (and a fellow recipient of the Pulitzer Prize). But the key word is almost. Where ATLWCS’s sentences float among the clouds, even in the stormiest times, Richard Powers’s in The Overstory flip-flop between abstract philosophy and brutal honesty. And some can’t decide which subset they belong in. Regardless, though, there’s certainly something to be learned from the novel. Actually, there are far too many things to count that one could learn. Barbra Kingsolver, in The New York Times, calls the book “a gigantic fable of genuine truths,” which is a perfect description. Perhaps that’s why it’s the quote featured on its cover. Anyway, I had a hard time understanding it while in the midst of the the story, but this is absolutely a fable, albeit a multifaceted and lengthy one. Between the numerous moments of unshielded anger, small victories, and inexplicable defeat, we inch closer to an explanation as to why of all things humans would so ruthlessly destroy such complex and beautiful beings — beings that, some characters argue, are no less consciously alive than we are. This explanation, though, seems too complex to be put into words — in actuality, it’s probably closer to an understanding as opposed to any linear explanation. We can’t explain why we’re so powerless to stop ourselves from cutting these incredible things to the ground. Just like how we can’t explain how we know, deep down, that in the long run these trees will be just fine, while we will not. But we can only seek to understand and comprehend its infinite repercussions. Compared to a tree, though, that’s quite a small infinity.

Somehow, of all of the thousands of barren miles, a drunken truck driver — one of our own kind — managed to crash into L’Arbre du Ténéré, alone in the Sahara Desert, the only of its kind for over 250 miles. Every single minute of each and every day, an whole soccer pitch of trees is slashed, burned, and ground into nonexistence. And that’s only in the Amazon. I don’t know whether we’ve crossed the point of no return, or whether there is even a point of no return. Someday, at least, we won’t be able to go back to the way things are today. But this is terribly unsustainable. It’s a spiral into unraveling. Should we choose to do nothing, I doubt that we’ll realize it. One day, we’ll look back and realize that things aren’t the way they once were.

So above all else, The Overstory is indeed a fable, albeit a 502-page one. It is simple — humans are just doing what humans must — yet complex beyond all measure: we should be able to do something, but we are no match against ourselves. It’s a book that must be unpacked over a long time, if not across multiple rereadings. But, as with all fables, at its core lies a pithy central moral:

Trees are not in need of saving. We are.