Williams Reads picks book for 2016-17

October 28, 2015 by Jace Forbes-Cockell, Executive Editor

The Williams Reads book for the 2016-17 academic year will be The Sixth Extinction, written by Class of 1946 Environmental Fellow-in-Residence Elizabeth Kolbert.

Kolbert’s book argues that a modern, man-made mass extinction is currently occurring on Earth. Kolbert compares historical mass extinctions to contemporary ones, considering specific species that have been killed off in large part by humans and contrasting modern and prehistoric ecologies. The Sixth Extinction won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2015.

The inspiration for the book came from a 2001 trip to Greenland to write about ice coring.

“I got to camp out on top of the ice sheet, and the experience made a big impression on me,” Kolbert said. “Not all that long ago, during the last ice age, Massachusetts was also covered by an ice sheet, and being in Greenland really brought home to me how contingent the world as we know it is. It’s been a very different place in the past, and, through our collective actions, we’re insuring it will be a very different place in the future.”

The Williams Reads program looks for books on issues that would lead to productive discussions for people in the community and would be conducive to programming. To make the decision, the committee receives suggestions from students, committee members and previous participants. Over several months, the committee reads and reviews books, starting with those that have multiple recommendations. They think about both the usefulness of the book itself and the relevance of the subject matter and substance.

Questions asked include: How interesting is the theme? What programming could be staged around the book? Would this book be useful in a classroom setting? Other important characteristics include practical considerations, such as the length of the book and the cost, as the book is read by every incoming student, the faculty advisors to the first-year students, Junior Advisors and orientation leaders, as well as by community members at large.

The list gets whittled down throughout the spring and summer, at which point five or six suggestions still remain. “Mainly, though, we use the read as a way to engage, so we look for something different people can talk about,” Leslie Brown, associate professor of history and co-chair of the Williams Reads committee, said. “We look for books that offer engaging perspectives, something informative and credible, something that will make for lively learning and conversation; something that offers new knowledge or brings unheard perspectives.”

The Sixth Extinction was selected in part because the College is taking up a program of environmentalism next year. Also, the book crosses over through many disciplines, and the committee found this aspect allowed for creative programming, which was the case with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the selection for 2014-15.

The Sixth Extinction similarly crosses disciplines, so we are hoping for the same kind of synergy that we got with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Brown said. “In addition, The Sixth Extinction is well written, and the book has been well received.” Furthermore, since Kolbert is currently at the College, it will be easy for her to visit classes and give talks on the subject.

Programming for the 2016-17 academic year will include a talk by Kolbert and potentially one or two presentations by experts in the field. There will also be panels, films and discussions, as well as an event on Claiming Williams Day.

Other books considered for next year included The New Jim Crow, Caleb’s Crossing, Quiet, Americanah and Beloved. Some of these books will be considered in the 2017-18 selection process.

“I hope students will learn something about the history of the planet, which is both fascinating and disturbing,” Kolbert said. “I also hope they’ll learn some intellectual history; people were arguing about the demise of species long before they were arguing about their origin. Most significantly, I hope students will gain an appreciation of how fast the world can change and how fast it is changing.”

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