The Overstory, by Richard Powers

The New York Times recently published an interesting Opinion piece called “The Empty Religions of Instagram: How did influencers become our moral authorities?” Well, I focused straight away because the type of influencers that this piece discusses – namely, Glennon Doyle – is my kryptonite. I, a middle-aged white mom, fall squarely in Glennon’s target demographic, yet my fascination with her and her ilk is more of the sideshow variety. This category mostly doesn’t appeal to me – and the questioning cycle of “why does this not appeal to me?” of course makes me feel completely out of sync with my peers – but it’s interesting watching her peddle self-help-with-an-edge while everyone seems to fall into lockstep. If I get too far down this rabbit hole, I (and my heart), get stuck in a cycle of cynicism.

Yet I know I’m not alone in giving the side eye to these 21st-century gurus. One of the most-recommended comments accompanying the online version of the aforementioned piece is from a librarian; here’s an excerpt: 

“I’m a catalog librarian in a public library so the books written by influencers cross my desk on a regular basis as that’s what our patrons want to read. It’s a running joke in my department that the Library of Congress should create a new subject heading for ‘I’m an actress/write a blog/have a popular Instagram account/etc. so I am qualified to tell you how to live your life’ material. And there should be a new Dewey number for the same. It would make my life much easier as I’m the department’s final say on how books should be classified. Often I look at these things and have to ask ‘What is this [insert your preferred noun for literature of dubious value that will circulate like wildfire for a short while and then get dusty on the shelves until weeded here]????’ Bio? Self-help? Cooking? Decor? Entertaining? Religion? Sometimes it’s all of the above.”

Talk about wishy-washy.

I’d argue that “lifestyle” books and “lifestyle blogs” (and, now, “lifestyle” Instagram accounts) have become the norm for seeking counsel because there is nothing two-way about them. (Pssst: Glennon doesn’t care about you, I’m sorry to say.) Instead of looking inward, we look for a model, and then we try to connect with whatever persona that influencer is presenting us. Their products supposedly provide us with input or advice, but it’s more like Stitch Fix or other subscription services that supposedly offer “personal shopping”…it is not personal, it’s an algorithm. Many of these “gurus” employ bulleted lists (but use cool emojis instead of bullet points) or create easily shareable graphics of “wisdom.” My high school friend recently took a quick getaway to the Oregon coast with her family. She posted some great photos of agates and other sea life, but honestly my favorite thing she posted from her holiday was a collage of word-emblazoned pillows found in their rented accommodations; she called it “Pillow Platitudes.” The “algorithm” for Instagram influencers = pillow platitudes. They are catchy, for sure, but aren’t those throw pillows the first thing we shove out of the way when we want to get comfortable on the couch? Points for function: Zero.

Recently I read a book that truly did feel life-giving and full of wisdom. In fact, since the book is (on the surface) about trees, this paperback truly was a representation of how one thing (a tree) can provide life for another (a story). Right after Christmas, my husband had a “goal” – he wanted to read a book with me. It seems simple – and I guess it is – but Matt has been a self-professed “non-reader” forever. The challenge was sweet and fun, and we had a good time asking for recommendations on Instagram. When all was said and done, we selected The Overstory, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning novel.

Matt and I each shared our reflections about The Overstory on my Instagram account. {You can click this image to go to @alifelyread.)

For me, reading this book was akin to reading a religious text. I was moved, I felt closer to understanding “life” (or at least think of it differently), I cried. The Overstory prompted interesting conversations with Matt. I placed my hand over my heart several times while reading. A lot of people have said about The Overstory: “I loved it, but I’m not sure what it’s about.” The easiest response is that it’s a book about trees. But to me, this 500-page novel is so clearly about connection: Humans’ connection with each other, our connection with the natural world, people’s connection with themselves. (PS: Matt would say The Overstory is about “death” and “time.”)

“Connection” to some may feel like an amorphous term – there are no step-by-step instructions (or Instagram Reels or TikToks) to demonstrate how to do this. Instead of offering readers a pat beginning-middle-end manual for life, Powers gives us (and it really is a gift) an open-ended illustration for what connection might look like: how it bends, how it sometimes fails us, how it enriches us. Multiple storylines weave together; some characters meet, some characters don’t. Some fight for the natural world, one advocates for a virtual world. What’s the thread? A desire – even if they can’t articulate it – to not feel alone, to feel tethered to someone, to have who they “are” be acknowledged.

The mother of the woman who penned the NYT piece “is an influencer in the old-school sense – at 72, she still works full time as a psychotherapist, she’s a lay minister at her church, and she fills her free time with volunteer work.” The author says to her mother: “I find myself craving role models my age who are not only righteous crusaders, but also humble and merciful, and that I’m not finding them where I live (online).” Did you catch that last parenthetical?

I don’t mean to sound overly erudite, but if you’re looking for some wisdom but need it in the form of inanimate objects – baby steps, I guess – may I suggest a well-written novel? And then, as Powers so eloquently shows readers, go outside and take a look up. Not at a streetlight, as one character (Olivia, who comes back from the dead after being electrocuted – see, even books about trees can be exciting) does, but at a tree.

The Overstory is in many ways built around the character of Dr. Patricia Westford, a botanist who studies how trees communicate with each other. She is cruelly shunned and mocked for her findings. (Her character is rumored to have been based on a real person named Dr. Suzanne Simard. You can read a New York Times Magazine profile about her HERE and view her TED Talk called “How trees talk to each other” HERE.)

Powers gives all his characters underline-worthy dialogue and thoughts, but Patricia’s are some of the best:

“Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses. And in shaping themselves, they shape, too, the tens of thousands of other, linked creatures that form in from within. Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees.”

“The single best thing you can do for the world. It occurs to her: The problem begins with that word world. It means two such opposite things. The real one we cannot see. The invented one we can’t escape. She lifts the glass and hears her father read aloud: Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.”

Now read that again in light of “living” online and seeking wisdom from Instagram. What’s the “real world”? And what’s the “invented one”?

For what are we apart from our environment? Just a click away from a pillow platitude?




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