“Thank you,” said Lauren, taking the mug from Gwen. It wasn’t often that all three of the trio could meet together to formally discuss a book –– and even rarer that they could do so with another friend. So Gwen had pulled out the stops to make the meeting an “occasion.”
“Does everyone have their copy of ‘Silent Spring’ with them?” Gwen asked, finally taking a seat around the coffee table. Eleanor and Lauren, both resting on the couch, held up worn copies of the novel.
“I just borrowed Eleanor’s when she was done,” Dania said. “I remember most of it.”
“All right, well…” Gwen began. “Welcome to book club, everyone.”
“Don’t call it ‘book club,’ Gwen,” Dania groaned. “You make it sound so dry and formal.”
“How does this typically work?” Lauren asked.
“There’s not really a process to it,” explained Eleanor. “We just talk about the book.”
“Well, I do have some points I’d like to try and hit,” Gwen said. She held up her copy of the book –– dog-eared and brimming with post-it notes.
“Is there a test after the discussion?” asked Lauren.
“Definitely not,” responded Eleanor, “Gwen just likes to come as prepared as possible.”
“Let’s just start the discussion already,” Gwen groaned. “Lauren, as the guest, would you like to start off?”
“Sure,” Lauren said. “I always wonder when I read a classic book like this about what here was revolutionary for the time period. The idea of nature being so interconnected and codependent is common knowledge today, and I wonder if that was considered fact back in the 1960s when Carson wrote this.”
“Yeah, that element of the book surprised me,” Eleanor agreed. “The complete lack of care for the Earth was staggering. Not to mention the sheer amount of toxic chemicals in sprays that were considered ‘safe’ at the time.”
Lauren nodded. “I’d like to think that agricultural chemicals today are much safer, but maybe that’s me being an optimist.”
“It certainly feels like the sort of thing that people are still up in arms about today,” Gwen added. “The pesticide companies fought against the book when it was released, and likely still would if it came out today.”
“Would it come out today, though?” Dania asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, if she were writing it today, would she have written a book?” Dania wondered. “I feel like this is more the realm of the Internet today.”
“Oh definitely,” Lauren said, “in publishing, we always ask ourselves if a book, specifically a nonfiction one, is actually meant to be a book or a long-form article. Since this book was originally serialized in The New Yorker, I could see an editor today pushing to have this exist purely as an online article. There’s also so many film and streaming options now too. Maybe Carson would be an emblazoned YouTube video essayist, fighting against pesticide overuse from her organic farm?”
“Well, maybe,” Dania clarified. “The book feels more in line with people like John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj. The comedians-reveal-terrible-things-that-no-one-is-talking-about genre.”
“It’s interesting you bring that up,” Lauren responded. “I hadn’t considered that. My comparison point was closer to An Inconvenient Truth. I feel like lots of people initially found out about climate change from that movie. It was everywhere, and everyone had opinions on it. Of course, a lot of people still don’t believe it, which didn’t seem like the case here.”
“That’s just it, right?” Eleanor jumped. “What struck me about it is just how much of an impact this one book was able to have. All the congressional testimony, the movement against DDT. There’s no equivalent now, for one book leading a charge like that.”
“It’s a different time,” Lauren said. “The news moves so quickly today that I feel like we’re either always focused on something else, or we’re focused on the same thing for a much shorter period of time. Remember when the New Yorker published that article about how the Pacific Northwest is going to be decimated by an earthquake? We cared about that a lot for a few weeks, maybe. But then we move on. The U.S. is so big that two people could read news like this and have completely different reactions to it. A midwestern farmer could read this and cut back their use of pesticides, but a city-dweller could read it and not see how the arguments here directly affect them.”
“I will say, the book is impressively accessible to the layman reader,” said Gwen. “With a book this dense, you’d expect it to be more impenetrable, but she does an excellent job of explaining these pesticides in a comprehensible manner.”
“I agree. Especially coming from the publishing industry, I so appreciated her organizing the book as moving up the food chain. It definitely felt like it was arranged for the common person, for that modern city-dweller who is somewhat disconnected from the effects of pesticide use.”
“I mean, the stories alone give you a real visceral reaction to a problem that’s often so abstract,” Eleanor added. “The story about the worker who reached into a vat of pesticides with an open hand, and almost immediately died?”
“I could not get over the scientist who swallowed a pesticide sample with the antidote on hand who still became paralyzed because the poison was so strong that he couldn’t cure himself fast enough,” Lauren said. “These chemicals truly were terrible.”
“I think the part that weirded me out the most is the story about the flyover planes, just dumping poisons onto entire cities,” Dania added. “Without anyone knowing it was poison!”
“Yes, the extreme overuse absolutely floored me,” Lauren replied. “I loved how she layed out the idea of introducing natural predators to the pests, and how much more effective that solution would be. I do remember, growing up in the Pacific Northwest, that we were warned against introducing non-native species, but it does sound like the examples she gave worked way better, especially compared to the poison dumping. But, of course, we’ve never been particularly good as a species ourselves of choosing the opinion that takes a tad more work, even if it’s ultimately more successful.”
“I do wonder,” Eleanor began. “This is sort of a different issue, but could this book have potentially kicked off the current trend of hypersensitivity about GMOs and “natural” produce?”
“Isn’t that the opposite issue?”
“Kind of, but we’ve talked about how much resistance there was to the book talking about poisons, and how some people simply didn’t care about that,” Dania pointed out. “But there was a swing in the other direction, too –– people caring way too much about potential poisons in food.”
“That’s fascinating,” Lauren commented. “GMOs were invented in part as an alternative to pesticides, the idea being that you could grow seeds that are modified to withstand a certain amount of pest activity. Of course, since news travels so quickly now, it seems like everyone quickly developed a very ingrained opinion on GMOs, across the spectrum.”
“It’s not an altogether rosy picture of humans,” Eleanor said. “We come across as really blunt –– focused on treating the symptom and not the disease.”
“This definitely felt like a take-down of the system, and not of a few individual companies or products that are doing the most harm,” said Lauren. “The epigraphs from the opening pages seem to sum it up perfectly. E.B. White writing that he is ‘pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good’ feels especially spot on.”
“But also, going off of what Eleanor said, I don’t think humans come off as particularly ingenious here.”
“Fair,” said Lauren.
Gwen continued: “I do believe that any book with a revolatory argument should be put out there, though. Even if it’s met with resistance, as they almost always are. Access to knowledge is always important, as is good discussion, as you ladies know already know, of course.”
“I want everyone in Congress to read this book,” said Lauren, “especially that guy who threw the snowball on the Senate floor.”
“At the very least, everyone should know who Rachel Carson is,” Eleanor said. “Considering the great work she put into the world.”
“Embarrassingly enough,” responded Lauren, “my introduction to Rachel Carson was seeing her amongst a collection of Who Is/Who Was books for children at my local bookstore. I’m jealous that lots of kids got to meet her before I did.”
“She’s certainly a foundational voice in the environmental movement,” Gwen considered, “and a breath of fresh air in our own combattative time.”
“It is sort of nice to remember a time when people’s minds were changed by facts and science,” Dania added.
“Here’s hoping we can return to such a time.” Eleanor raised her mug into the air.
“We’ll certainly hope so,” Lauren said, clinking her own mug against Eleanor’s.
Lauren Scovel is a literary agent and writer originally from Seattle. Her writing can be found at The Millions and forthcoming from Pangyrus Literary Magazine. She holds degrees in Writing, Literature, Publishing and Theatre Studies from Emerson College. She lives in Boston.
Image Source: Emiliano Ponzi / The New Yorker