The World Without Us
Alan Weisman, 2007

This book expands on an article in Discover magazine about what would happen if humans suddenly vanished but left the rest of the world exactly as is. The basic idea is that while you may think that our homes and cities would quietly collect dust for thousands of years in our absence, in fact it would only be a matter of a few years before houses collapsed, trees burst through roads, and almost all traces of human civilization disappeared. It takes constant human activity to keep nature at bay. This is a very interesting thing to have pointed out, and I bet it made for a dynamite Discover magazine article. The problem is that the book is essentially the Discover article plus two hundred extra pages of vamping, as The World Without Us meanders from topic to tangential topic: Wouldn't nuclear plants melt down? Doesn't plastic last a long time? Hey, what might wipe us out in the first place? Some of these bits are interesting — I was particularly interested in the chapter about Varosha, a tourist resort in Cyprus that has been abandoned since the Turks captured it in 1974 — but it still feels bloated. As the book wears on and the chapters get shorter and shorter, as if the author were telling his editor, "What? I have to pad it out by another ten pages? All right, but this is the last time!"

It isn't just the structure that keeps The World Without Us from feeling like a real book. I plunged into it knowing nothing about the author, assuming he was a scientist or an urban studies professor or something like that. But I soon noticed something strange. Weisman not only keeps turning over the floor to various experts in the field, but he describes them, as if it were somehow important what these people look like. "Gülyaz, a proud native with a moustache thick as a fine Turkish rug..." "Fred Newhouse, a compact, congenial man with light brown skin and grizzled hair..." What's up with that? I turned to the back flap and read the author blurb, which described him as "an award-winning journalist." And it occurred to me — maybe this book is written the way it is because the author wished it were a special on one of those newsmagazine shows or something. As we sit on the train reading this book, in our mind's eye we're not supposed to imagine what the talking heads are saying — we're supposed to imagine them saying it, sitting in their offices with a window full of representative scenery behind them. But as Weisman points out, TV transmissions will be propagating through the universe long after every book ever printed has become food for microbes, so it's easy to understand why he might have aspired to the more permanent medium.

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