BOOKS

The Overstory

Author: Richard Powers

Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

About two paragraphs into this book, I wrote on social media that I just knew I was going to love this book. And I did. The book starts unconventionally, with single-person focused vignettes about the key dramatis personae. These vignettes stand solidly as wonderful character studies that might have come from Spoon River Anthology. With all of his richly realized pieces on the table, Powers uses the framing device of trees in their multitudinous ways of affecting us, to bring the characters, or the characters’ thoughts together.

It’s a beautiful book and is outstanding for its focus on character, beautiful language, and elegiac tone.

Focus on Character

As a sample, of Powers’ skill at characterization, we meet Mimi Ma (artist, bohemian, reformed eldest-daughter bully to two sisters) as she suddenly has a realization:

Truth comes over her like a revelation: The only thing worth believing in is measurement. She must become an engineer, like her daddy before her. It’s not even a choice. She’s an engineer already, and always has been.

Or, consider Patty who loves the forest and Ovid and sees the magical uniting thread of wildness between man and fauna:

She reads the book [The Metamorphoses]. The stories are odd and fluid, as old as humankind. They’re somehow familiar, as if she were born knowing them. The fables seem to be less about people turning into other living things than about other living things somehow reabsorbing, at the moment of greatest danger, the wildness inside people that never really went away.

Powers also gets the Silicon Valley engineer character type “right.” It’s probably the most “right” nailing of this individual, whom I had the mixed blessing of getting to know over a decade in the Bay. Powers’ character Neelay is a cross between Linus Torvalds, Jeff Bezos, young Bill Gates, and Elon Musk…with a liberal dose of second-generation Indian son on top.

“He’ll spend his life in the service of an immense conspiracy, launched from the Valley of Heart’s Delight, to take over the human brain and change it more than anything since writing.”

Powers’ residence at Stanford provides him ample source material amid that strange place where abundant fields were lain under pavement to provide parking for office parks where individuals like Neelay or his father could perfect packing transistors into Silicon furrows instead of the ground.

Language

Hopefully those preceding snippets establish the beautiful capability Powers has with the English language. While this is put to great use to describe the human characters of the drama, it’s also wonderfully applied when describing the other characters: the trees.

“Its cells obey an ancient formula: Keep still. Wait. Something in the lone survivor knows that even the ironclad law of Now can be outlasted.”

If you consult my extracted notes below, you’ll see some wonderful turns of phrase.

Elegy

With his knack of sentence construction and characterization firmly in place, Powers explores an elegiac theme that put me in mind of my recent wrestling with being human and the catastrophes we’re wreaking on this planet and other living beings. Usually I lament that we’ll be the species that ends dogs, but this book adds another grave loss to the Universe’s menagerie: trees.

“Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.”

Even if it’s been a while since you’ve seen the majesty of a tree, Powers has an unbelievable skill at helping you find your religious reverence for these amazing creatures. His beautiful descriptions serve to make your heart ache to touch a tree, to hear a tree, to smell a tree again. Some of his characters can only experience a tree in memory or from a convalescent’s bed, but even in those cases we feel their connection to the tree through the fellowship of Life’s most delicate thread. And then we feel it ourselves. It’s truly moving…and, amid the destruction we are wreaking on them, sad.

As Powers says, the tree shades the woodcutter until the moment he strikes it.

Conclusion

I’d recommend this book with a full heart. It’s simply wonderful. As Mimi’s father says:

What else is there to say, to a bear? “Apologize! I tell him, people very stupid. They forget everything—where they come from, where they go. I say: Don’t worry. Human being leaving this world, very soon.”

I’ll hope the dogs and the trees enjoy the peace once we’re gone.

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      "highlight": "The blackest despair at the heart of them gets pressed to diamond.",
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      "highlight": "It waits to see what the always insane species will do next.",
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      "highlight": "The colony is swift and cunning—as cunning at getting what they need as anything human.",
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      "highlight": "People are an idiot. There’s a big old OUT OF ORDER sign hanging from his species’ pride-and-joy organ.",
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    {
      "highlight": "Ability to execute simple acts of reason? Feeble. Skill at herding each other? Utterly, endlessly brilliant.",
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    {
      "highlight": "We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.",
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      "highlight": "He can’t read the text on his banner. It’s written by a thing with five hundred million root tips. It says, Oak and door come from the same ancient word.",
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      "highlight": "Something is distinctly fucked up in the status quo, and that includes him. He doesn’t want to live in a world where some twenty-year-olds die so that other twenty-year-olds can study psychology and write about fucked-up experiments.",
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      "highlight": "The monster bases with their fleets of carpet bombers are closing down, and the thousand piggyback cottage industries of an addicted economy turn violent.",
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      "highlight": "it’s Douggie’s growing conviction that the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.",
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      "highlight": "Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over.",
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      "highlight": "“We just have to figure out how to get our plans into its memory.” “We’re putting our plans in there? How many plans will fit?” The question stops the man, as simple ones sometimes do. He stands lost in the universe’s weeds, hunched a little from the stronger gravity of the world he visits. “Someday, it may hold all the plans we have.” His son scoffs. “This little thing?” The",
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    {
      "highlight": "He has found a way to turn his innermost hopes and dreams into active processes.",
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    {
      "highlight": "He’s busy making worlds. Small ones, at first, but his.",
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      "highlight": "There’s a thing in programming called branching. And that’s what Neelay Mehta does. He will reincarnate himself, live again as people of all races, genders, colors, and creeds.",
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    {
      "highlight": "He’ll spend his life in the service of an immense conspiracy, launched from the Valley of Heart’s Delight, to take over the human brain and change it more than anything since writing.",
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      "highlight": "His farewell to a species turning from animal into data.",
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      "highlight": "The seed his father plants in him will eat the world.",
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      "highlight": "lovely code doing more with less—bits of data passing from memory to register to accumulator and back in a dance so beautiful he can’t begin to tell his friends.",
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      "highlight": "Every program tunnels into possibility.",
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      "highlight": "And there’s only the narrowest window of time in which to really see them, before these things that never were turn into things that have always been.",
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      "highlight": "In a few years, a kid like him will be given cognitive behavioral therapy for his Asperger’s and SSRIs to smooth out his awkward human interactions.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Once, the fate of the human race might have been in the hands of the well-adjusted, the social ones, the masters of emotion. Now all that is getting upgraded.",
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      "highlight": "Vishnu has put all of living possibility into their little eight-bit microprocessor, and Neelay will sit in front of the screen until he sets creation free.",
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    {
      "highlight": "He knows why she hates him. His kind will drive hers extinct.",
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    {
      "highlight": "The day is one of those eerie Central Peninsula imitations of heaven—seventy degrees and clear, the air thick with bay laurel and eucalyptus.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
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      "highlight": "the source for anyone who wants to grow it some more. Soon his creatures propagate on hosts across the planet. Every day people around the globe add new species to the repositories. It’s the Cambrian Explosion all over again, only a billion times faster.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The gift economy—free duplication of well-shaped commands—promises to solve scarcity at last and cure the hunger at the heart’s core.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Former philanthropists of free code start taking out copyrights and making actual coin. They even have the nerve to form private companies. Granted, they’re still just peddling floppy discs in baggies, but it’s clear how things will go.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The commons are getting enclosed. The gift culture will be throttled in the cradle.",
      "location": 1685,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "He spends his free time re-creating one of the most famous commercial offerings, improving on it, then releasing the clone into the public domain.",
      "location": 1686,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "A silent chorus in his head sings: Turn and look. Turn around and see!",
      "location": 1713,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the plan that now uses him, although he thinks it’s his.",
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      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze.",
      "location": 1799,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "he gives her a bowdlerized translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It’s inscribed: For my dear daughter, who knows how big and wide the family tree really is.",
      "location": 1818,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "She reads the book. The stories are odd and fluid, as old as humankind. They’re somehow familiar, as if she were born knowing them. The fables seem to be less about people turning into other living things than about other living things somehow reabsorbing, at the moment of greatest danger, the wildness inside people that never really went away.",
      "location": 1822,
      "annotation": "Ovid"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Independent thought—a power of attraction all its own.",
      "location": 1880,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "She wants to raise her hand and say, like Ovid, how all life is turning into other things. But she doesn’t have the data. All she has is the intuition of a girl who grew up playing in the forest litter. Soon, she sees.",
      "location": 1894,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "A secret suspicion sets her apart from the others. She’s sure, on no evidence whatsoever, that trees are social creatures. It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed communities must have evolved ways to synchronize with one another.",
      "location": 1904,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Nature knows few loner trees.",
      "location": 1906,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "and her heart as happy as the day is generous.",
      "location": 1921,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral.",
      "location": 1928,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "All the razzmatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic act.",
      "location": 1929,
      "annotation": "Photosynthesis"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "wounded trees send out alarms that other trees smell. Her maples are signaling.",
      "location": 1960,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "No other animal closes ranks faster than Homo sapiens.",
      "location": 1987,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "In another heartbeat, she can’t believe what her animal fear was willing to make her do. The opinion of others left her ready to suffer the most agonizing of deaths. She runs the entire meal down the garbage disposal and goes hungry, a hunger more wonderful than any meal.",
      "location": 2004,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Her real life starts this night—a long, postmortem bonus round.",
      "location": 2006,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Human estimation can no longer touch her. She’s free now to experiment.",
      "location": 2007,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will lose by winning.",
      "location": 2084,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There are things in here worse than wolves and witches, primal fears that no amount of civilizing will ever tame.",
      "location": 2110,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "As if forests were waiting all these four hundred million years for us newcomers to come cure them.",
      "location": 2169,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Her public reputation, like Demeter’s daughter, crawls back up from the underworld.",
      "location": 2198,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "straight out of Ovid, humans on their way to turning into greener things. Together, they form one great symbiotic association, like the ones they study.",
      "location": 2213,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.",
      "location": 2229,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "he blurs the line between those nearly identical molecules, chlorophyll and hemoglobin.",
      "location": 2252,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "She takes his shaking hand in the dark. It feels good, like a root must feel, when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground.",
      "location": 2265,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things.",
      "location": 2266,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "she’ll straighten up, fly right, and head westerly, where all good fuck-ups always head.",
      "location": 2346,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "How have they survived long enough to wreak all the shit they have?",
      "location": 2370,
      "annotation": "They=human"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Hiding is pointless now. Something’s watching—huge, living sentinels know who she",
      "location": 2424,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "She must still discover that myths are basic truths twisted into mnemonics, instructions posted from the past, memories waiting to become predictions.",
      "location": 2478,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "a named apple is a patentable apple, as Olivia’s father would tell her.",
      "location": 2486,
      "annotation": "Loop back To Ray? Maybe this is a married name"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The equation electrifies her. Art and acorns: both profligate handouts that go mostly wrong.",
      "location": 2711,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The nine-thousand-dollar raise does almost nothing for her but make her hungry right away, again.",
      "location": 2789,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "She breathes in, eyes closed, the tree’s real name.",
      "location": 2832,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Outrage floods into her, the sneakiness of man, a sense of injustice larger than her whole life, the old loss that will never, ever be answered.",
      "location": 2951,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "memories of the U-Stor-It in Chicago that was home to the great works of his twenties, until he turned them into a large, combusting concept piece.",
      "location": 3117,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Anger is her new lunchtime card game, played solitaire while eating her egg and hot pepper sandwiches on a bench in the newly minimized Zen garden.",
      "location": 3209,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.",
      "location": 3455,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "return him to the days of myth and origin, when all the places a person could reach were green and pliant, and life might still be anything at all.",
      "location": 3536,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“The psyche’s job is to keep us blissfully ignorant of who we are, what we think, and how we’ll behave in any situation. We’re all operating in a dense fog of mutual reinforcement. Our thoughts are shaped primarily by legacy hardware that evolved to assume that everyone else must be right. But even when the fog is pointed out, we’re no better at navigating through it.",
      "location": 3635,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "legacy cognitive blindness will forever prevent people from acting in their own best interests.",
      "location": 3670,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Righteousness makes Mimi nuts. She has always been allergic to people with conviction. But more than she hates conviction, she hates sneaky power. She has learned things about this mountainside that sicken her.",
      "location": 3759,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Now: the second-best of times.",
      "location": 3775,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "What is it within us that gives us this need not just to satisfy basic biological wants, but to extend our wills over things, to objectify them, to make them ours, to manipulate them, to keep them at a psychic distance?",
      "location": 3925,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Borges, still the guiding principle of his young life: Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe in the future he shall be.",
      "location": 4378,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "She would tell him—how the towering, teetering pyramid of large living things is toppling down already, in slow motion, under the huge, swift kick that has dislodged the planetary system. The great cycles of air and water are breaking. The Tree of Life will fall again, collapse into a stump of invertebrates, tough ground cover, and bacteria, unless man . . . Unless man.",
      "location": 4778,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-on for the actual. A man who has never doubted that life has a meaningful future. Now that’s done.",
      "location": 4867,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "While her fellow engineers might overlook that error—the species is plagued by countless design flaws, after all—she’s also guilty of fighting against progress, freedom, and wealth. The race’s birthright. That’s not something her profession will ever forgive.",
      "location": 4901,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the man posts himself at the firm’s door, like the angel at Eden’s east gate who kept the humans, poachers of one forbidden tree, from breaking back into the garden and eating the other fruit that would have solved everything.",
      "location": 4924,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“I mean, how does knowing you’re going to die give you a leg up? Smart enough to see you’re a sack of rotting meat wrapped around a little sewage tube that’s going to give out in—what? Another few thousand sunrises?”",
      "location": 4929,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The world depends on so many different species, each a nutty experiment.",
      "location": 4944,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "has a name. We call it the bystander effect. I once let my professor die because no one else in the lecture hall stood up. The larger the group . . .” “. . . the harder it is to cry, Fire?”",
      "location": 5047,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Consciousness itself is a flavor of madness,",
      "location": 5066,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”",
      "location": 5278,
      "annotation": "So meta"
    },
    {
      "highlight": "teaches everyone a few words of Klamath-Modoc. “Everything happening here was already known. Our people said long ago that this day would come. They told of how the forest was about to die, when humans suddenly remembered the rest of their family.”",
      "location": 5282,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.",
      "location": 5459,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Light and water and a little crushed stone demand long answers.",
      "location": 5538,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Long answers need long time. And long time is exactly what’s vanishing.",
      "location": 5538,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "We’re all doomed, the man thinks. We have always all been doomed.",
      "location": 5543,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "That’s the job of consciousness, to turn Now into Always, to mistake what is for what was meant to be.",
      "location": 5847,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.",
      "location": 5965,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Always the locals tell her the same thing: We don’t want to kill the golden goose, but it’s the only way around here to get to the eggs.",
      "location": 6064,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Love, as all the good novels know, is a question of title, deed, and possession.",
      "location": 6188,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "what do all good stories do?” There are no takers. Neelay holds up his arms and extends his palms in the oddest gesture. In another moment, leaves will grow from his fingers. Birds will come and nest in them. “They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t.”",
      "location": 6456,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "What keeps us from seeing the obvious?” Douglas puts his hand to the brass bull’s horn. “And? What does?” “Mostly other people.”",
      "location": 6751,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Code—wildly branching code pruned back by failure—builds up this great spiraling column from out of instructions that Vishnu managed to cram into something smaller than a boy’s fingernail.",
      "location": 6829,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "“You can’t see what you don’t understand. But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to notice.”",
      "location": 6899,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "When he looks up again, Mannahatta is gone, replaced by the lights of Lower Manhattan.",
      "location": 7290,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Trees remember what we’ve forgotten. Every speculation must make room for another. Dying is life,",
      "location": 7313,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Her smile insists that this isn’t defeat. It’s use by another name.",
      "location": 7326,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "How life managed to add imagination to all the other tricks in its chemistry set is a mystery",
      "location": 7392,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "The law is simply human will, written down. The law must let every acre of living Earth be turned into tarmac, if such is the desire of people. But the law lets all parties have their say. The judge asks, “Would you care to address any final words to the court?”",
      "location": 7405,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Everyone around her in the park is likewise busy, tapping and swiping, each with a universe in his palm.",
      "location": 7479,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "You cannot shut down human hunger. You cannot even slow it. Just holding steady costs more than the race can afford.",
      "location": 7493,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "the globe, and the code spreads outward. New theories, new offspring, and more evolving species, all of them sharing a single goal: to find out how big life is, how connected, and what it would take for people to unsuicide.",
      "location": 7519,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory.",
      "location": 7522,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "He has felt grief before—that awful mix of hopes crushed and rising—but always for kin, colleagues, friends. It makes no sense, this grief for a place he won’t live long enough to see.",
      "location": 7597,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "A human can feel only so many things, and once you enumerate them",
      "location": 7618,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "they need only learn what life wants from humans. It’s a big question, to be sure. Too big for people alone. But people aren’t alone, and they never have been.",
      "location": 7628,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "simply by placing billions of pages of data side by side, the next new species will learn to translate between any human language and the language of green things.",
      "location": 7737,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "Two life sentences, back to back. Too severe for arson, for destruction of public and private properties, even for involuntary manslaughter. But just harsh enough for that unforgivable crime: harming the safety and certainty of men.",
      "location": 7751,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "That’s the scary thing about men: get a few together with some simple machines, and they’ll move the world.",
      "location": 7820,
      "annotation": ""
    },
    {
      "highlight": "that the word tree and the word truth come from the same root.",
      "location": 7829,
      "annotation": ""
    }
  ]
}