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Fake news is killing us. How can we stop it?

Salmon Arm is a little town of 17,000 in central British Columbia, not far from busy ski slopes in the Canadian Rockies. It’s home to stunning blue lakes, tree-covered mountains, and a worrying number of signs claiming that COVID-19 is a hoax.

Tim Walters

But maybe less than there used to be. Tim Walters, a professor of English at Okanagan College, has been tearing down the signs one by one since they started appearing a few months ago. The signs demand B.C. “wake up” and sport a hashtag tied to QAnon, a far-right conspiracy movement. By June, Walters was walking three or four hours a day, wandering in ever-widening circles, yanking down the signs wherever he went.

It’s become a “low-level obsession,” he said. “Because of how crazy they are, people don’t take these conspiracy theories seriously enough.”

The conspiracy theorists responded by putting their signs higher, 8 or 9 feet off the ground. But Walters is 6 feet 6 inches tall with long arms to match. People have been sending him directions to new signs in their neighborhoods that they can’t reach.

The reality is that fake news is killing people. Research shows that wearing masks could reduce the spread of COVID-19 by half, yet misleading claims about the safety of mask-wearing have proliferated. If everyone wore face masks in public, according to a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, it could save an estimated 33,000 American lives by October.

“Misinformation about COVID is spreading faster than the virus itself,” said Gale Sinatra, a professor of education at the University of Southern California who’s writing a book about fake news and the public’s understanding of science. Epidemiological experts say that a pandemic is as much of a communications crisis as it is a public health emergency. It’s reminiscent of climate change — despite a mountain of evidence showing the devastating effects on our overheating planet, only two-thirds of Americans say they’re worried about it. That’s a sign that these messages aren’t reaching people, or perhaps that fake news resonated with them more.

As an added challenge, the climate crisis and COVID-19 have both gotten sucked into the vortex of polarization in America. And as the pandemic has stretched on, becoming the background of our lives, it’s activating many of the same psychological barriers that people face when confronted with climate change. “Everyone’s got COVID fatigue now,” Sinatra said.

Coronavirus denial shares many similarities to climate denial, the dismissal of the scientific consensus around global warming. It’s spread by many of the same people, and the arguments for these bonkers theories often sound a lot alike: a rejection of mainstream science, a story of governments plotting to manufacture a crisis, and a message that the best thing to do is just continue business as usual. So why should I wear a face mask?

Studies have shown that fake news spreads faster on social media than real news does. People on Twitter are 70 percent more likely to share false news than the real stuff. And it’s difficult to shut down. “Misinformation is unfortunately a bit more compelling than regular information,” Sinatra said. Conspiracists spin tales that are surprising and dramatic, like a plot twist in a movie — a contrast to the drumbeat of “COVID-19 cases are rising!” seen on the news every day. So short of tearing down posters, what can people do to shut down the spread of misinformation?

Taking misconceptions head-on is one option, Sinatra said. But it has to be done carefully, or it can backfire, because repeating wrongheaded claims in the course of refuting them risks spreading them even further. Repeating things makes them stick. As the linguist George Lakoff pointed out, when you tell people “Don’t think of an elephant” they can’t help but picture an elephant.

“Just saying ‘You’re wrong’” — that does not work,” Sinatra said. You have to explain why something is incorrect and offer a good explanation for a convincing counterpoint.

Conspiracy signs headed for the recycling. Tim Walters

“My thing is, you always have to confront them head-on,” said Walters, who incorporates rebuttals into his English classes. He recently taught a college course about the climate crisis and found that many of his students were on the fence about the science at first, unsure of what was true, before reading assignments like David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, which educated (and terrified) them. Walters equipped his students with the facts about climate change and encouraged them to discuss what they learned with their friends and family.

One resource that could help them is the new Conspiracy Theory Handbook, written by two cognitive scientists, Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook. It’s a free online source that offers tips on how to debunk conspiracy theories and talk to people who believe in them.

Even so, the best way to counter fake news might be to equip people with the tools to evaluate what’s fake and what’s real from the get-go. “It’s better to inoculate people preemptively against conspiracy theories rather than trying to go in afterward and undo the damage,” said Cook, a professor at George Mason University, in a recent interview with The Verge.

The problem, of course, is that those under the sway of misinformation aren’t willing to take the vaccine.

One nonprofit, the News Literacy Project, aims to help students across the country get savvy when it comes to identifying fake news and think critically about what they come across online. There’s evidence that this approach helps for people of all ages. One study from the University of Michigan found that people are less likely to trust, “like,” or share fake climate change news on Facebook if they read a few questions beforehand such as “Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story?” and “Does the information in the post seem believable?”

Scientists and public health experts are having a tough time in the COVID-19 pandemic, because they’re learning basic facts about the virus and how it spreads from week to week. They’re trying to communicate new findings to the public in real time, and evolving recommendations are bound to sow confusion. That’s one big difference between the two crises: Climate scientists got the basic story nailed down ages ago. “The science around climate change has been developing for decades,” Sinatra said. “COVID’s only been on the planet for the last six months.”

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Fake news is killing us. How can we stop it?

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The Big, Bad Book of Beasts – Michael Largo


The Big, Bad Book of Beasts

The World’s Most Curious Creatures

Michael Largo

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: April 16, 2013

Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks


The world's wildest collection of animal knowledge and lore! Lions, and tigers, and bears . . . and dinosaurs, dragons, and monsters. Oh my! For hundreds of years, the most popular books in the Western world next to the Bible were "bestiaries," fanciful encyclopedias collecting all of human knowledge and mythology about the animal kingdom. In these pages, eagles and elephants lived next to griffins and sea monsters. Now, in The Big, Bad Book of Beasts, award-winning author Michael Largo has updated the medieval bestsellers for the twenty-first century, illuminating little-known facts, astonishing secrets, and bizarre superstitions about the beasts that inhabit our world—and haunt our imaginations. You'll learn about the biggest bug ever, the smallest animal in the world, and the real creatures that inspired the fabled unicorns. You'll discover how birds learned to fly, why cats rub against your legs, and a thousand other facts that will make you look at nature in a wonderfully new way. Did you know? The fastest animal in the world is the peregrine falcon, which reaches speeds of over 200 miles per hours. Circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum fooled many when he displayed a "mermaid" carcass that was later proved to be monkey bones sewed together with the body of a fish. Discovered in a remote volcanic crater in New Guinea, the Bosavi wolly rat grows to the size of a cat. President Andrew Jackson bought an African gray parrot to keep his wife company. The bird outlived them both and was removed from Jackson's funeral for cussing in both English and Spanish. A to Z: From Aardvark to Zooplankton! For all ages! Includes 289 illustrations!

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The Big, Bad Book of Beasts – Michael Largo

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The Oysters of Locmariaquer – Eleanor Clark


The Oysters of Locmariaquer

Eleanor Clark

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: February 4, 2014

Publisher: Ecco


Winner of the National Book Award “[Clark’s] fantastic blending of science and art, history and journalism, brings the appetite back for life and literature both.”  — Los Angeles Times Book Review On the northwest coast of France, just around the corner from the English Channel, is the little town of Locmariaquer (pronounced “loc-maria-care”). The inhabitants of this town have a special relationship to the world, for it is their efforts that maintain the supply of the famous Belon oysters, called les plates (“the flat ones”). A vivid account of the cultivation of Belon oysters and an excursion into the myths, legends, and rich, vibrant history of Brittany and its extraordinary people, The Oysters of Locmariaquer is also an unforgettable journey to the heart of a fascinating culture and the enthralling, accumulating drama of a unique devotion.

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The Oysters of Locmariaquer – Eleanor Clark

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The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen & Pico Iyer


The Snow Leopard

Peter Matthiessen & Pico Iyer

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: September 30, 2008

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group


An unforgettable spiritual journey through the Himalayas by renowned writer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014), the National Book Award-winning author of the new novel In Paradise In 1973, Peter Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller traveled high into the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and possibly glimpse the rare and beautiful snow leopard. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, was also on a spiritual quest to find the Lama of Shey at the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain. As the climb proceeds, Matthiessen charts his inner path as well as his outer one, with a deepening Buddhist understanding of reality, suffering, impermanence, and beauty. This Penguin Classics edition features an introduction by acclaimed travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer. For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen & Pico Iyer

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INCONVENIENT FACTS – Gregory Wrightstone



The science that Al Gore doesn’t want you to know

Gregory Wrightstone

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $8.99

Publish Date: August 30, 2017

Publisher: Silver Crown Productions, LLC

Seller: Hillcrest Publishing Group, Inc.

Well researched, clearly written, beautifully presented and, above all, fact-packed books such as  Inconvenient Facts  are absolutely essential to the very survival of democracy, to the restoration of true science, and to the ultimate triumph of objective truth. Christopher Monckton, Viscount of Brenchley You have been inundated with reports from media, governments, think tanks and “experts” saying that our climate is changing for the worse and it is our fault. Increases in droughts, heat waves, tornadoes and poison ivy—to name a few—are all blamed on our “sins of emissions” from burning fossil fuels and increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Yet, you don’t quite buy into this human-caused climate apocalypse. You aren’t sure about the details because you don’t have all the facts and likely aren’t a scientist.  Inconvenient Facts  was specifically created for you. Writing in plain English and providing easily understood  charts and figures, Gregory Wrightstone presents the science to assess the basis of the threatened Thermageddon.  The book’s 60 “inconvenient facts” come from government sources, peer-reviewed literature or scholarly works, set forth in a way that is lucid and entertaining. The information likely will challenge your current understanding of many apocalyptic predictions about our ever dynamic climate. You will learn that the planet is improving, not  in spite  of increasing CO2 and rising temperature, but  because  of it. The very framework of the climate-catastrophe argu-ment will be confronted with scientific fact. Arm yourself with the truth. 

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INCONVENIENT FACTS – Gregory Wrightstone

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Eclipse – J. P. McEvoy



The science and history of nature’s most spectacular phenomenon

J. P. McEvoy

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $2.99

Publish Date: April 20, 2017

Publisher: William Collins


J P McEvoy looks at remarkable phenomenon of a solar eclipse through a thrilling narrative that charts the historical, cultural and scientific relevance of solar eclipses through the ages and explores the significance of this rare event. In the year when Britain will be touched by a solar eclipse for the first time since 1927, J P McEvoy looks at this remarkable phenomenon through a thrilling narrative that charts the historical, cultural and scientific relevance of solar eclipses through the ages and explores the significance of this rare event. Eclipse shows how the English Astronomer Norman Lockyer named the element Helium from the spectra of the eclipsed Sun, and how in Cambridge Arthur Eddinton predicted the proof of Einstein’s General Relativity from the bending of sunlight during the famous African eclipse of 1919. During late morning on 11 August, 1999 the shadow of the last total eclipse of the Millennium will cut across the Cornwall Peninsula and skirt the coast of Devon before moving on to the continent, ending its journey at sunset in the Bay of Bengal, India. Britain’s next eclipse will be in September, 2090. Throughout history, mankind has exhibited a changing response to the eclipse of the sun. The ancient Mexicans believed the Sun and the Moon were quarrelling whilst the Tahitians thought the two celestial objects were making love. Today, astronomers can calculate the exact path the moon’s shadow will track during the solar eclipse. As millions encamp for the brief spectacle with mylar glasses, pin-hole cameras, binoculars and telescopes, space agency satellites and mountain-top observatories study the corona, flares and the magnetosphere of the Sun as the 125 mile-wide black patch zooms along the ground at 2000 mph. About the author J P McEvoy was born in the USA. He has published over 50 papers on his specialist subject, superconductivity. He has been involved in improving public understanding of science for many years. He wrote the TV series Eureka, describing great moments in science from Archimedes to the present. In addition to journalism and radio broadcasting, he has written two guides in the ‘Begginers’ series for Icon Books.


Eclipse – J. P. McEvoy

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The Nature Instinct – Tristan Gooley


The Nature Instinct

Relearning Our Lost Intuition for the Inner Workings of the Natural World

Tristan Gooley

Genre: Nature

Price: $10.99

Publish Date: November 20, 2018

Publisher: The Experiment

Seller: Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

The culmination of everything Tristan Gooley has written so far: How to take your knowledge about the outdoors—and make it second nature Readers of master outdoorsman Tristan Gooley have learned that the world is filled with clues to look for—we can use the Big Dipper to tell time, for example, and a budding flower to find south. But what about the innate survival instincts that told Gooley to move on one night, just as he was about to make camp? Everything looked perfect, but something felt wrong. When Gooley returned to his abandoned campsite to search for clues, there they were: All of the tree trunks were slightly bent. The ground had already shifted once in a storm—and could easily shift again, becoming treacherous in heavy rain. The Nature Instinct shows us how Gooley and other expert observers—from hunters in the English countryside to the Pygmy people in the Congo—have recovered and rekindled this lost “sixth sense;” a subconscious,deeper understanding of our surroundings. By training ourselves through slow, careful observation, we too can unlock this kind of intuition—for finding the forest’s edge when deep in the woods, or knowing when a wild animal might pose danger—without even having to stop to think about it.

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The Nature Instinct – Tristan Gooley

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Firenado? Bambi Bucket? A guide to wildfire vocabulary

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Amid a hellscape of glowing coals, a fiery column recently took flight in Northern California, spinning against a red sky. The name for it? Firenado.

“I had never heard of a fire tornado until today and I really kind of hope I never see a firenado again in my life,” music video producer Robby Starbuck said in a tweet that went viral.

Yes, a firenado is a real thing. Same with Pyrocumulus, Wildland-Urban Interface, and Bambi Buckets. This month’s rash of fires brought the wildfire jargon to the masses, and the masses (myself included) were pretty confused. I wondered what other fire words and concepts people were encountering for the first time as they read about the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.

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What does it mean, for instance, when a wildfire is 45 percent “contained”? What the heck are the “Santa Ana winds,” other than a frequent crossword answer? And is there a difference between a “firenado” and a “fire whirl”?

To understand these bewildering terms, I turned to Andrea Thode, a fire ecologist at Northern Arizona University. She acknowledged that these new words could be daunting for outsiders. “Terminology in the fire world is … there is a lot,” she told me. To illustrate, she asked if I’d seen the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s 183-page glossary of wildfire terminology — yes, that’s 183 pages, not 183 words.

With climate change making wildfires worse, you’re sure to be hearing these pyro-specific words for the rest of your life. You might as well learn them now.

Bambi Bucket

No, it’s not an oversized pail to rescue lost fawns. A Bambi Bucket is a collapsible bucket that hangs from a helicopter to collect water and dump it on wildfires. What’s with the name? The inventor, Don Arney, made it up as a joke name for the bucket he planned to planned to call SEI-Flex after his company, SEI Industries. Then a friend pressured him into making it the real name. End of story.

A helicopter pours water on fires.aapsky / Getty Images


The Camp Fire was 45 percent “contained” as of Friday, according to Cal Fire. That doesn’t mean 45 percent of the fire has been extinguished. It means that firefighters have surrounded 45 percent of the perimeter around the fire with “containment lines” — rivers, trenches, and other physical barriers that prevent fire from creeping past. The percentage is a judgment call on the part of the fire teams, Thode says. Generally, they underreport the figure until the very end, because it would be embarrassing to call it contained and then have the fire run wild again.

Defensible space

If you live in a fire-prone area, it’s a good idea to take precautions to protect yourself. You want the area around your house, called “defensible space,” to be free of dead plants, wood piles, and anything that could turn into tinder so that wildfires bearing down on your belongings don’t get any help.

Jan van Rooyen


A fire tornado — a spinning column of whirling, red-hot air — is nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term to 1871, shortly after the Great Chicago Fire. It’s also known as a “fire whirl,” though some experts maintain there’s a difference between the two, reserving “firenado” for a vortex so big and strong that it’s comparable to a typical, fire-free tornado. During the Carr Fire in California this summer, one of these twisters packed 143-mph winds — the equivalent of an EF-3 rating on the tornado-damage scale. Thode, for one, doesn’t make a distinction: “I wouldn’t say a fire tornado is different from a fire whirl.”


Will it burn? If the answer is yes, it’s fuel. Anything flammable counts. So not just gasoline and trees, but also houses, hand towels, and non-dairy creamer.


An inversion is an atmospheric imbalance that occurs when a belt of warm air sits over cold air. That’s the reverse of normal, stable conditions, in which it gets colder as you go up in elevation. Like a lid on a pan, an inversion can trap smoke. “It can make it really smoky for people underneath the inversion, because the smoke can’t punch out and get away,” Thode says.

Rising smoke is stopped by an overlying layer of warmer air due to a temperature inversion.S / V Moonrise

Prescribed fires

It’s a common forest-management practice to set fires on purpose — in a careful, planned way, of course. Indigenous groups did this for thousands of years. But until recently (like 1995), the U.S. actively suppressed any and all wildfires, leading to a buildup of fuel in our forests. Prescribed burns take out overgrown brush, encourage the growth of native plants, and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.


Evil-looking mushroom clouds sometimes form over a really hot wildfire. The name says it all. Cumulus clouds are those puffy, cotton-like clouds that people lying in the grass like to imagine are animals floating in the sky. Add fire (pyro) and you get the sinister name. As flames burn the moisture out of vegetation, they release water vapor and hot air that rise up and form a cumulus cloud. On rare occasions, rain falls from these clouds, snuffing out the flames below. Also known by the name “flammagenitus,” pyrocumulous clouds sometimes form over volcanic eruptions too.

A pyrocumulus cloud forms above a wildfire.Skyhobo / Getty Images

Red flag warning

Growing up near the Great Lakes, I thought red flags warned of dangerous currents in the water. But no. It’s fire lingo for when warm temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds lead to a high risk of fire.

Santa Ana winds

Speaking of strong winds … the infamous Santa Ana winds fanned the flames of the Camp Fire. These hot, dry winds roll from the Great Basin into Southern California in the fall, gusting over already-dry terrain and getting warmer as they go. They’re part of a larger category of pressure-based winds called “foehn” winds, which flow from high-pressure areas in the mountains down into low-pressure areas. “Typically you would see these Santa Ana winds, but you wouldn’t see fuels this dry,” Thode says. “Climate is definitely playing a role in this.”

Wildland-urban interface

This is the zone where the natural environment meets the built environment. Wherever you have homes, corrals, and powerlines butting up against undeveloped forests or grasslands, it could mean trouble for nearby towns and cities. That’s because fire can easily spread from vegetation to grandma’s house.

One final fire-tangential term to keep in mind: the “new abnormal.” A few months ago, California Governor Jerry Brown called the increase in destructive fires ‘the new normal,’ but he recently tweaked the term.

“This is the new abnormal,” he said at a press conference on Sunday. “Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify.”

Seven of the 10 biggest wildfires in California history have occurred in the last decade. If we want to escape a future filled with firenadoes and pyrocumlous clouds, we’ve gotta get our act together on climate change.

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Firenado? Bambi Bucket? A guide to wildfire vocabulary

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Tofurky is suing over Missouri’s definition of ‘meat’

On Tuesday, Missouri became the first state to ban “meat” from the product labels of plant-based and lab-grown alternatives. The new law, part of a larger agricultural bill, prohibits “misrepresenting a product as meat” if it doesn’t come directly from an animal. Violators are subject to a fine of $1,000 and — wait for it — a year in prison.

Harsh punishment for calling vegetarian sausage “sausage,” huh? Tofurky seems to think so. The vegan company filed a lawsuit against Missouri on Monday to block the law, joined by the Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund, and American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. The suit seeks to defend the right to market meatless products with meaty words on First Amendment grounds.

The Missouri Cattlemen’s Association lobbied to pass the law. The beef industry has been working to protect what it calls “beef nomenclature” with stricter labeling rules, which could potentially leave environmentally friendlier plant-based or lab-grown options with some unappetizing names (anyone want some textured vegetable protein for dinner?). In April, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to raise the alarm over the “flagrantly deceptive food product labels proliferating the marketplace.”

To counter the claim that “vegan bacon” and the like are confusing shoppers, Tofurky’s lawsuit includes a surprising etymology lesson. The text points out that “the very oldest usages of the term ‘meat,’ and its analogues in the predecessor languages to Modern English … are to describe nourishment or food generally.”

We’ve used the word “meat” in this broader sense since the 9th century, Kory Stamper, lexicographer and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, told me last month during our conversation about similar tactics over the label “milk.”

Old English speakers used the word to refer specifically to animal flesh in the 1300s, Stamper said. But just a century later, people were also using it for the flesh of a fruit or a nut, like the meat of a walnut — another factoid cited by Tofurky’s lawsuit.

The suit notes that plant-based product labels have included words like “beef” and “sausage” for decades. It suggests that this practice has resulted in little confusion for shoppers: “[T]here have been no consumer protection lawsuits in Missouri — or any other state — challenging the accuracy of plant-based meat products’ marketing or packaging.”

If Missouri’s law stands, it could end up setting the standards for the whole country. As Quartz reports, it’s a big pain for food companies to tweak their packaging for just one state.

The U.S. has seen battles over vegan terminology before, like the vegan “mayo” controversy of 2015. And last month brought news that the FDA was officially reviewing the question of whether almond milk can be labeled as milk (after all, “an almond doesn’t lactate,” according to the FDA commissioner).

While Missouri is the first state to legislate a restricted definition of meat, there’s an international precedent: The language purists in charge of France approved a similar meat terminology ban in April.

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Tofurky is suing over Missouri’s definition of ‘meat’

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Jesmyn Ward’s Resistance Reading

Mother Jones

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We asked a range of authors and creative types to suggest books that bring solace and/or understanding in this age of rancor. More than two dozen responded. Jesmyn Ward—an associate professor of English at Tulane University whose novel Salvage the Bones landed her a 2011 National Book Award—has a highly anticipated new novel due out in September. The book, intriguingly titled Sing, Unburied, Sing, is set in her native Mississippi. She wants you to read it, of course. And she also wants you to read the following.

Latest book: The Fire This Time (editor)
Also known for: Men We Reaped
Reading recommendations: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism: Author Edward E. Baptist builds a very compelling argument that slavery made the foundation and growth of the United States, as an independent country, possible. This book is so necessary because it seems we live in a time where those in power are invested in willful ignorance, “alternative facts,” and a revisionist view of the kind of real pain, suffering, and dehumanization that actually allowed this country to ascend to “greatness.” We need books like this to shine light on the darkness that beats at the heart of America today.

Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future, by David Grinspoon: Contrary to what our dear leader believes, climate change is not a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. It is real. This book provides a sobering exploration of how human beings have affected the climate of our planet, but also gives us reason to hope in the end. We need that now.
The series so far: Daniel Alarcón, Kwame Alexander, Margaret Atwood, W. Kamau Bell, Ana Castillo, Jeff Chang, T Cooper, Michael Eric Dyson, Dave Eggers, Reza Farazmand, William Gibson, Piper Kerman, Phil Klay, Alex Kotlowitz, Bill McKibben, Rabbi Jack Moline, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Peggy Orenstein, Wendy C. Ortiz, Darryl Pinckney, Joe Romm, Karen Russell, George Saunders, Tracy K. Smith, Ayelet Waldman, Jesmyn Ward, and Gene Luen Yang. (New posts daily.)

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Jesmyn Ward’s Resistance Reading

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