Dr. Margot Miller to Discuss Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novel at Easton Library

On Wednesday, September 25, from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m., in the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library, Margot Miller, Ph.D., will lead a discussion of Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “thesis novel,” “The Overstory … and its understories. Advance notice of the talk is given now to provide interested patrons the time to check out and read Powers’ book (which, at 512 pages, may take a little while). Miller has titled her talk

“The Lure of the Immediate Advantage.”

Miller offers the following synopsis to engage readers:

“Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory,’ winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is very obviously a thesis novel.  On the first page the voice of a tree chides the human reader, ‘Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more,’ making the cliché of missing the forest for the trees the guiding metaphor of this novel and announcing the plight of forests and planted trees alike in our contemporary climate, if not the entire Anthropocene to date, as the subject of the novel.  Powers’ thesis is that modern humans, lured by the immediate advantage of temporary comfort, are rendering the planet uninhabitable (at least for themselves) and a significant portion of this destruction is due to the loss of forests and the diminished oxygen/CO2 exchange required for human habitation that results.  Powers’ narrator muses later, ‘We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling. And … why [is] this so easy to see when you’re by yourself in a cabin on a hillside, and almost impossible to believe once you step out of the house and join several billion other folks doubling down on the status quo.’

 “Powers’ thesis about the roles of trees and humans in planetary history is not original; many modern thinkers, scientists, and philosophers, not to mention observant nature-lovers, have voiced these concerns for scores of years if not longer, but his novel emerges late in the second decade of the twenty-first century just in time to wonder if it will, a hundred years from now, be one more example of the thesis/philosophical novel in the tradition of Voltaire and Diderot, or simply the last. Will we even be reading novels a century from now, let alone studying the specific genre of the thesis novel or debating the literary qualities of this one in particular?  And will it be its literariness or its science that compels its inclusion in the canon of twenty-first century works? Indeed, we might ask if the Pulitzer Prize is awarded for the quality of the fiction or for the urgency of its message.

  “Perhaps even more interesting than either the construction of the novel or the science on which it relies is the more subtle question raised by one of the book’s main characters: What is the lure of the immediate advantage to the individual in the crowd, specifically to not act on the assumption that someone else will do it, and what does it take to resist this complacency?”

           Miller has taught literature classes at Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning and at the Academy for Lifelong Learning. She has also spoken to private book clubs on various titles, particularly those by French authors. The library discussion will include a short introduction by Miller and a handout/schema of Power’s novel and main characters, with questions both for and from participants about the literariness of the work, the science fundamental to its thesis, and the deeper questions buried in the text concerning the confrontation between human nature and Nature itself.

Readers are encouraged to allow sufficient time to consider Powers’ 512-page novel, and may want to have a look at “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wolleben as well. Miller will also touch on Annie Proulx’s “Barkskins,” a 700-page read, so a good summer reading list for those interested.

All library programs are free and open to the public.  Patrons do not need to pre-register to attend this discussion.  For more information, please call the library at 410-822-1626, or visit www.tcfl.org.

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