Recently I had that age-old problem of finishing a book and finding myself ready for bed and at a loss for something to read. I turned to my bookshelves to hunt for a book that I hadn’t yet read.
I picked up a battered and yellowed copy of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, the English science-fiction writer. John Wyndham’s real name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. He wrote a number of books under a combination of these names, including John Beynon and Lucas Parkes. He originally penned detective novels, but it was when he first wrote under the name of John Wyndham and turned his attention to science fiction that his career really took off. The Midwich Cuckoos was also adapted for film and renamed Village of the Damned. I remember seeing it when I was younger, with its eerie children, their glowing eyes and a sense of evil emanating from them. I enjoyed the book, in a science-fiction-ish, spookyish, very 1950s British sort of way. It reminded me of the early Dr Who episodes, in that it suggested violence instead of explicitly showing it.
After finishing that I felt like some action, so I picked up The Kept by James Scott. I certainly got what I asked for. It was a type of Western, although set in upstate New York in the 19th century, and features full-on violence: almost an entire family is slaughtered near the beginning of the book. A child is shot through the head and lies amid bloodstained snow. You get the idea. I had to suspend disbelief more than once, which annoyed me slightly at times (this seems odd after reading science fiction), and I certainly felt overwhelmed at times by the violence. But overall it was a good read, and maybe the difference between the two books exacerbated the impact of the violence.
So I felt I needed some relief. I picked up a book called The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. (I don’t tend to read a lot of non-fiction but this book makes me want to read more of it.) The author writes that over the last half billion years there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth. Scientists are now monitoring the sixth. Kolbert tells this story by drawing on her own experiences out in the field as well as with interviews and reports from scientists at the coalface of research.
We meet the Panamanian golden frog, which at one time was abundant in South America, and jungles were loud with their cacophony of glops. You could visit villages whose markets were full of tacky-looking frog statues in different poses for tourists to buy. Now the frogs are rarely to be found. Amphibians are disappearing globally; Australia’s southern day frog is now gone. Frogs are the world’s most endangered group of animals.
You may think, and quite rightly, that this has been happening for a while. But news like this has become white noise to many of us. The Sixth Extinction, however, may jolt you back into reality. Kolbert writes: ‘It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater molluscs, a third of all sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.’ She says that ‘if you know where to look you can probably find signs of the extinction event in your own backyard’.
Kolbert also writes about scientists who have researched and investigated our planet and the plants and animals that live – and once lived – on it. We meet the scientists who preceded and inspired Darwin through to those out there now searching for species that are fast disappearing. We learn how humans discovered the concept of extinction. I had never thought about the fact that at one stage humans weren’t aware that the concept of extinction existed. A molar the size of a brick from the jaw of a mastodon changed all that.
I could rabbit on for pages about this book. It’s fascinating, illuminating, compelling, very readable and very disturbing all at once. It makes you think and makes you question. I’d love you to read it and tell me what you think.
Here’s to books. Variety is the spice of life.