The best environmental books we’ve read in 2019

Looking back on the year, I’m happy to see that a novel that made our best books list in 2018 won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize: The Overstory by Richard Powers (and deservedly so).

Looking ahead, I believe more and more readers are going to be seeking out the stories and insights that can only be found in the books included below. What follows is a selection of the best books we’ve read over the past year (and of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list; as always, there are too many books and too little time). While many of the stories here can be challenging to read and may sometimes paint a bleak view of the future, the fact that they are here now, and that readers are picking them up and sharing them, is in itself a hopeful sign. As we say here at EcoLit Books, Read like you give a damn. Thank you for joining us on this journey.

Midge Raymond

Through a Vegan Studies Lens: Textual Ethics and Lived Activism by Laura Wright
(University of Nevada Press)

I would choose Through a Vegan Studies Lens as my favorite, for the wealth of vegan contributions by passionate writers and activists, and for being a one-of-a-kind resource for those in vegan and animal studies programs.

Jacki Skole

Muri by Ashley Shelby
(Radix Media)

Climate change, talking polar bears, and a reimagining of a Herman Melville novella combine to make Muri a must-read short story.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olka Tokarczuk
(Riverhead Books)

An elderly woman, considered a loon by residents of a remote Polish village, believes she knows who is killing townspeople: the animals. They are, she believes, getting their revenge. (Review coming soon to EcoLit Books.)

John Yunker

This past year has largely consisted of reading books I should have read a long time ago (and I want to highlight three of these). But two books were published within the past year(ish):

The Cow with Ear Tag #1389 by Kathryn Gillespie
(University of Chicago)

This book is a valuable addition to a growing canon of literature that challenges our understanding of a “normal” relationship with animals and that will, hopefully, as more people become aware of the horror, lead to positive changes. It’s simple enough to start, really. You just stop eating meat and go from there. The Cow with Ear Tag 1389 is doing its part to opens hearts and minds.

Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy, and Everyday Practice by Jennifer Wren Atkinson
University of Georgia Press

One person’s garden may represent something very different to another, which is one reason this book is such an important read. Gardens reflect society, in all its inequality and irony. 

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
(Milkweed Press)

While so many nonfiction books I read these days lead me from one bleak conclusion to another, this book left me feeling hopeful. Because the author is hopeful, and stubborn, and smart, and one hell of writer. Robin Wall Kimmerer doesn’t just point out the many challenges we face as a planet but she points a way forward.

Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment by Rachel Carson
(Library of America)

This edition was actually published relatively recently, and it includes a wealth of letters that shed insights into the many struggles Carson overcame. This book should not be relevant today; we should have been more aggressive about removing chemicals from our soil and food and clothing when this book first came to light. But we did not.

The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka and translated by Larry Korn
(New York Review Books Classics)

This book is as much about establishing a relationship with nature as it is about growing vegetables and fruit trees. Ultimately, as the title attests, this book is about revolutionizing the way we treat the land beneath our feet. Even if you have no intentions of tossing a seed onto the ground (though I recommend a few showy milkweed seeds for the monarchs) you’ll enjoy this book.

Larry Korn was an Ashland, Oregon, resident and he died November 19th.

Rest in peace.

The Center for Humans and Nature

The Soil Keepers by Nance Klehm
(Terra Fluxus Publishing)

Nance Klehm’s gem of a book is full of conversations she’s held with practitioners who work to support healthy soil.

The New Farmer’s Almanac 2019 (The Greater “We”)
(Greenhorns)
Do you care about diversity? Here’s your book! A volume packed with bright and beautiful ideas from a community of front-line thinkers/doers in farming and food systems.

Foxfire, Wolfskin and other Stories of Shapeshifting Women by Sharon Blackie
(September Publishing)
Drawing on myth and fairy tales found across Europe, Sharon Blackie brings to life women’s remarkable ability to transform themselves in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances.

The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf and Lillian Melcher
(Pantheon)

Andrea Wulf partners with artist Lillian Melcher to bring to life an intimate portrait of the man who predicted human-induced climate change, fashioned poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and influenced iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin, and John Muir.

The Fall of the Wild: Extinction, De-Extinction, and the Ethics of Conservation by Ben Minteer (Columbia University Press)

Carefully considered and illuminating essays on the tension between preventing further species loss and increasing the artificial at the expense of the wild.

Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben 
(Henry Holt)
McKibben is justly famous for his ability to think through provocative ideas with clarity and verve. In his latest book he considers the possibility that the evolutionary experiment of Homo sapiens may have played itself out.

Time Song: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn 
(Jonathan Cape)

Combining travel with story, Blackburn remembers the lost land that once connected England to mainland Europe before it was submerged 7,000 years ago. She has been called a writer of “simple profundity you can only grasp.”

Horizon by Barry Lopez
(Alfred A. Knopf)

Storyteller of humanity’s quests and explorations and follower in those footsteps, Lopez searches for meaning and purpose in a broken world.