What to read before the asteroid strikes

February 15, 2013

Nothing to worry about. Sure. . . .

I’ve been watching those awesome meteor videos from Russia while listening to scientists scoff at 2012 DA14 — that rock the size of an apartment building that’s scheduled to zoom by Earth later today.


A diagram depicting the passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 through the Earth-moon system on Friday. (NASA)

Let the astrophysicists spin their numbers. I decided to seek out Ron Currie, Jr. Four years ago, he wrote a curious novel called “Everything Matters!,” which opens with news that our planet will soon be destroyed by a comet. It’s the kind of story that makes cosmology personal: How would you live if you knew, for sure, that everything will be gone in a few years?

Here’s an edited version of our e-mail exchange:

What does today’s close encounter with an asteroid make you think about? 

There’s a part of me that is simultaneously compelled/repulsed by the notion of planetary doom, so a near-miss by an asteroid, of course, inflames that Armageddon Cortex in my brain. Recently, while writing an essay about Patrick Swayze and the original “Red Dawn,” I came to the conclusion that the reason I’m so preoccupied with apocalypse is because of the palpable sense, during the nuclear saber rattling of the early 1980s, that oblivion was always just around the corner. I was genuinely traumatized by it, as a young kid, and as can happen with trauma, it morphed into a sort of fetish. That fetish is on display in both “Everything Matters!” and “God is Dead,” my first book. But on the other hand, judging by the popularity of apocalyptic books, television shows and various other entertainments, I’m not alone in my obsession. Perhaps it’s hardwired into us as a species, this urge to slow-dance with the specter of our own doom.

If this asteroid were going to strike, what would you want to read?

I just got my hands on Christopher Hitchens’s “Arguably,” and though I’ve read some of the essays in other places, there is a ton of material I haven’t encountered yet. Putting aside for a moment his world-class dialectical skills, he was such an amazing line-by-line writer. And so, so funny, even as he approached death. There’s a great moment in one of the essays from his last collection, “Mortality,” in which he chides correspondents who, on learning that he was dying of throat cancer, suggested that God was punishing him for his blasphemy by giving him cancer in the very part of his body that he used to profane so often. Hitchens responded by assuring them that, over the years, his throat was hardly the only organ with which he had profaned.

And what do you want to make sure you’ve done before we’re eventually blasted to cosmic smithereens?  

I’d like to take batting practice at Fenway Park before I’m too old and feeble to hit one over the wall. I still haven’t scored tickets to “The Book of Mormon.” I’m hoping I have enough time to write a couple more books, too, or at least to see how people receive my new one, “Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles,” which just came out this week.

Is there any philosophical value to these near misses? Do they help concentrate the mind in some useful way?

I’m not sure about that. Maybe on a micro-level. I mean, here you and I are, talking about it, and I guess that in itself could be described as us being prompted by the near miss to concentrate our minds. I think the real value of this, though, is that it highlights the very real possibility of a celestial object impacting the Earth. Unless we can seed the world with another couple dozen celebrity astronomers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, it’s always going to be a challenge to get people to care about things like asteroid strikes. This event forces a brief but important public conversation. Literary apocalyptic fantasies aside, we face a real danger, and it’s one we should be paying a bit more attention to.

charlesr@washpost.com

 

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Janet Bennett Kelly · February 15, 2013