What Great Writers Read When They Read Green Writing

What do today’s Literary Greats think of, when they think of the environment? PEN, the distinguished human rights and international literary organization, asked 11 renowned writers from around the world to ponder the question, and then to read a poem, essay, or bit of fiction aloud this past Tuesday. The event, called Green Thoughts, was part of a larger PEN World Voices lecture and reading series going on in Manhattan this week. 

As it turns out, several of the Greats think of the end of time and human extinction (imagine that) when they think about the environment. Colson Whitehead chose to read an excerpt from Cormac McCarthey’s haunting novel The Road, in which a father and son negotiate the desolate ruins of an incinerated and soon-to-be lifeless world. Whitehead says he actually cried in public while reading the novel. This was strange, he noted, as crying is an activity he normally reserves for nights spent watching Old Yeller in the privacy of his own home. He doesn’t, he says, “find the end of the world as fun as he used to.” 

Gary Shteyngart read from a futuristic global warming spoof by George Saunders, whose protagonist defiantly pronounces nature as glorious and beautiful as ever, despite the fact that “seasonably warm” autumn weather is, in his world, so many thousands of degrees hot that cars melt to liquid.

Salman Rushdie delighted the audience with a segment concerning an “airborne toxic event” from Don DeLillo’s horrifically hilarious novel White Noise, in which a black, toxic, civilization-threatening cloud moves in on a professor’s quiet suburban world. Subsequently, the exposed professor is given a computerized diagnosis of “pulsing stars,” which may or may not mean certain death.

It seemed fitting that some of the Greats should remind us to arm ourselves with a sense of humor as we march into green battle to conserve our planet. It also seemed fitting that—with two exceptions—they read from work that was not their own. Teamwork, right? China and the U.S., evangelicals and atheists, liberals and conservatives. There's practically no 'I' in 'environment.'


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