Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement by Mark Hamilton Lytle

For the first time in a number of years I feel like I have the energy, the time, and the interest to read something vaguely academic. In the search for an academic topic, I realized that my growing interest in environmental history did not yet have an academic basis. Limited to the local public library and without a syllabus in hand to guide me, I went for a familiar name to direct my research. Living where I do, the name Rachel Carson has come up more than once, so that's where I started.

I picked up Mark Lyttle's The Gentle Subversive to be honest, because of its relatively small size compared to some of the other Rachel Carson biographies. I'm thrilled that I did, not only because it was short enough to get through (I'm an academic but that doesn't mean I'm a glutton for reading 300+ page scholarly works on a regular basis) but more importantly, it was extremely well-written and engaging - not always true in scholarly works. Moreover, it was a good academic book written by a well-respected environmental historian. As a result the facts were well-researched and comprehensively described.

In the afterword Lyttle admitted that he focused on Carson as a writer, in part to differentiate himself from the other books written about Carson previously. That focus appealed to me as an aspiring writer myself. Reading about her frustrations with writing and her attempts to get published gave me hope about writing. But I also found her personal struggles as she grew increasingly despondent with lack of government response to harmful pesticides intriguing. Never having read any environmental history, I found Lyttle's attention to the growing public discontent gripping.

By the end of The Gentle Subversive I realized that I definitely want to read Silent Spring, Carson's chef d'oeuvre about the harm of pesticides on nature (which is currently sitting on my desk). I also feel continually encouraged to work towards a greener, healthier earth. Finally, unlike some dry books, I did not walk away disengaged with academia. Instead I was anxious to find something more to read.

If you are looking for a book to stir your environmental juices, pick up Lyttle's The Gentle Subversive. It is well worth the time.

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