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Discussion questions for ‘The Overstory’
Our November pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Richard Powers’ “The Overstory.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Richard Powers on our Google form. Powers will answer reader questions on the PBS NewsHour broadcast at the end of the month.
WARNING: Spoiler alert on questions further down.
- Why do you think Richard Powers chose the title “The Overstory”?
- What was your experience with trees as a child, and what has it been as an adult? Have trees shaped your life in any meaningful way? Do you have a favorite tree?
- Adam initially builds his career on studying the faults in human brains, such as confirmation bias and the conflation of correlation with causality. Meanwhile, Douglas is convinced that humans’ greatest flaw is mistaking agreement for truth. What questions does this book ask about human failings?
- What does Powers mean when he describes humans as “trapped in blinkered bodies”?
- What do you make of the voices Olivia hears, and her sense of conviction that “the most wondrous products of four billion years of life” need our help?
- Which character’s story do you identify with the most, and why?
- It is a difficult moment for Douglas when he learns that all of his years of planting trees have only allowed companies to increase its annual allowable cut. How did this book make you think differently, if at all, about clear-cutting? Do you see it happening in your own community?
- What are you learning about trees that you didn’t know before? Did some of Patricia’s research surprise you, either about the “giving trees” or the ways dead trees contribute to forests? Did any of it change the way you see trees?
- Patricia describes trees and humans as being “at war” over land and water and the atmosphere, and that she can see “which side will lose by winning.” What does she mean by that?
- The book is divided into four parts: “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” What is the significance of each section? Were you surprised when the stories began to intertwine?
- Our book club just finished reading “We the Corporations,” a book about the ways corporations have gained many of the same rights as individuals. In “The Overstory,” Ray is moved and upset by a legal argument that suggests trees should also share those rights. Do you agree?
- Were you surprised by the lengths that Adam, Olivia, Nicholas, Mimi and Douglas went to try to wake people up to the destruction of forests? What did you think of their tactics?
- What have you read in the news lately that mirrors the stories in “The Overstory”? How is “The Overstory” playing out in real life in your own community?
- What is the significance of the worlds Neelay creates within his game, “Mastery”?
- What was your opinion of “direct action” as a means of effective activism before the book? What is your opinion after reading it? Do you think it should play a role in addressing the destruction of our planet?
- Toward the end of the book, Dorothy is arrested for her determination to let her yard grow wild. Did this book change how you see your own backyard?
- As the book closes, Mimi seems to say that the world as it has been is ending and a new one will begin. Does that ring true to you? How does that make you feel?
- Richard Powers writes: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Do you agree? Did any part of this story change your mind?