Elizabeth Kolbert: “What writers are especially good on the natural world?”

From a New York Times By the Book interview with writer Elizabeth Kolbert:

Please don’t ask Elizabeth Kolbert how she organizes her books.

“I don’t. Often this is a problem,” says the environmental writer, whose new book is “Under a White Sky.”

What books are on your night stand?

On my (metaphorical) night stand are Patrik Svensson’s “The Book of Eels,” Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom,” and the galleys of Jim Shepard’s new novel, “Phase Six.”

What’s the last great book you read?

The last book I read that really blew me away was Walter Kempowski’s “All for Nothing.”

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“Weird and Tragic Shores,” by Chauncey Loomis, is a wonderful riff on the classic Arctic explorer narrative. It’s about Charles Francis Hall, an American newspaper publisher who insisted on going looking for survivors of the last Franklin expedition long after it had become clear there weren’t any. Toward the end, almost by accident, the book becomes a murder mystery. . . .

What do you read when you’re working on a book?

Being a journalist is a bit like being a magpie. You’re always on the lookout for something shiny — a phrase, a fact, an insight — and you never know where you’re going to find it. When I embark on a new book, or on a new article, I try to read as much as I can on the subject. I live near a college library, and often I’ll look up one title and then just roam the stacks, letting one call number lead me to the next. This is an activity I’ve really missed during Covid.

What writers are especially good on the natural world?

There are so many — too many for me even to start to list. That said, there are certain works I keep coming back to: “Walden,” “Desert Solitaire,” Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us,” Annie Dillard’s “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” John McPhee’s “Encounters With the Archdruid” and “Annals of the Former World.” Anyone writing today faces the problem that what counts as the “natural world” has become pretty vexed. Some of the after-“The End of Nature” nature writers I think have had the greatest impact are: Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams, David Quammen, Rebecca Solnit and E. O. Wilson.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I was recently reading about chimps’ grooming habits in Carl Safina’s “Becoming Wild.” The social interactions between high- and low-status chimps are every bit as complicated as those you’d expect to see at a college mixer.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

This isn’t a subject, exactly, but I wish there were more popular science books written by scientists. I really enjoyed — and learned a tremendous amount from — “Stuff Matters,” by Mark Miodownik, who’s a materials scientist. The same goes for: “Gathering Moss,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a plant ecologist; “The Evolution of Beauty,” by Richard Prum (ornithologist); “Your Inner Fish,” by Neil Shubin (paleontologist); “The Forest Unseen,” by David George Haskell (biologist); and “Lab Girl,” by Hope Jahren (geobiologist). All these books opened up the world to me in a new way.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Roberto Bolaño, Italo Calvino and Isak Dinesen.

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