the overstory by richard powers


In The Overstory a character says:


The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.

This line leapt out at me due to the narrative in the book—how humanity is destroying trees without full recognition of the consequences—and also how author Richard Powers himself is doing that with this book. I also thought about me, a person who enjoys a good story, who learns more through fiction than through non-fiction. Give me someone to empathize with and I will go headlong into that journey and grapple with its challenges... but give me facts on a page and I will not feel much at all, so removed a number feels to me. I know it's a gap about myself. I don't learn much from a statistic, but I learn a lot from perspective, and that's why I love novels—I learn so much, all the time.


I did learn a lot from The Overstory’s message. The first part of this novel is a series of short stories of seemingly unconnected people, and it is masterful. The prose, the people, and storytelling are impressive. And then, the message, through the next three parts, is repeated... a lot. There are elements of wonder and distress. There are points in the plot that don't make sense—or do they? Are we to consider opposing outcomes to one decision? The fact that someone may be the child of a couple that falls apart because they cannot have children? This points to magical realism. Which may, in the end, undermine all of the great info about trees! So many trees! I look at trees differently now! WHO AM I?


A neighbor mentioned enjoying this book, but then not liking the end. And I agree. I felt it treated humanity negatively (mostly deserved), though for a 600+ page book didn't touch on some other issues. It really was just TREES. And yet, here I am, strapped with this new knowledge, and telling my dad that the tree that got knocked down by the wind in his backyard should remain where it is, as it is likely communicating with the other trees and that it will be ecologically advantageous to the living things in said forest. Again, who am I? I suppose, someone who learned a thing or two.




The Overstory

By Richard Powers

512 pages, 2018.


Buy it here