It’s easy to divide the world into pessimists and optimists: glass half-empty, glass half-full. But “ The Coffee Table Book of Doom ” is written for a third, considerably more neurotic personality: the type who sees the half-empty glass and knows that evaporation will wipe out the rest, day-to-day wear will break the glass and destruction of the Earth will eliminate all evidence that the glass ever existed.
This comically illustrated collection of disasters is loosely sorted into scenarios that depict the end of you, the end of the species, the end of the world and the end of the universe itself. Although the writing is breezy, the material is not. If your knowledge of the apocalypse stops at the Four Horsemen or nuclear war, cartoonist Steven Appleby and writer Art Lester will dazzle and depress you with the breadth of their end-times arcana.
Gray goo, anyone? It’s the result of self-replicating microscopic robots that consume all life on Earth. Or perhaps you’ve never heard of gender erosion? It’s the evolutionary destruction of the male sex brought about by estrogen pollution. Or maybe a fatal gamma wave pulse that strips away the planet’s protective ozone layer is more your speed? (There’s even space here to write in “your own personal dooms.”)
Appleby and Lester riff on all the more-familiar dooms, too, covering everything from the extinction of honeybees to global pandemics to radon to the destruction of the coral reefs. And though the tone is brisk and Appleby’s cartoons have a roughhewn charm that recalls the work of Roz Chast, it’s a difficult book to read. By the end, you’ll be clinging to the cold comfort that you’ll probably be dead by the time most of these scenarios play out. Probably.
Still, there’s a reason that dark comedy has a passionate following: By talking and laughing about our most paralyzing and profound fears, we’re able to manage them (or at least shove them down into sturdy compartments). “The Coffee Table Book of Doom” is paradoxically just as likely to quiet existential dread as it is to excite it.
Norton, who edits a Midwestern food journal called the Heavy Table, is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.”