NASA / Reuters

Late summer often proves turbulent on the Caribbean islands and along the Gulf Coast. Locals exist under the daunting threat of severe storms—such as this week’s Hurricane Dorian—that have the power to destroy lives and infrastructure.

Some have tried to prevent massive damage through scientific means, such as the cloud-seeding process—an attempt to affect rainfall—that Sam Kean describes in his book Caesar’s Last Breath. Historical factors also exacerbate storms’ death tolls and destruction: The essay collection Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South grapples with the preexisting social and economic structures that leave certain groups of people particularly vulnerable to storms.

In Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, set in a small Mississippi town after Hurricane Katrina, a young black boy experiences how circumstances of long-standing racism and inequality are amplified in the post-disaster environment of the deep South. The Floating World, a novel by C. Morgan Babst, is also set post-Katrina, and focuses on a woman struggling with and growing from the indelible traumas caused by the storm.

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What We’re Reading

The Floating World unearths trauma amid natural disaster
“Babst subverts any simple notions about victimhood in the eye of a storm and explores the possibilities for growth such extraordinary circumstances afford.”

📚 The Floating World, by C. Morgan Babst


Jesmyn Ward’s eerie, powerful uncovering of history
“[Ward] uses a haunting, magical-realist style to masterfully warp two of life’s most inflexible realities: time and death. Her book seems to ask whether a family or a nation can atone for inequities that remain well and alive.”

📚 Sing, Unburied, Sing,  by Jesmyn Ward


Why the Gulf Coast is uniquely vulnerable to disasters
“People don’t just find themselves in places vulnerable to flooding. They are pushed there by racial injustice, economic inequality, and short-term, profit-driven development practices.”

📚Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South, edited by Cindy Ermus


The chemist who thought he could harness hurricanes
“[Irving Langmuir] soon sketched out an idea so revolutionary that he abandoned every other project on his slate to pursue it. It promised not only to improve rainmaking but to give Langmuir the superhuman power to control hurricanes.”

📚 An excerpt from Caesar’s Last Breath,  by Sam Kean


The Reference Desk​

(New York Public Library)

This week’s question comes from Richard in North Carolina. He’s wondering why people would choose to read at the beach when they could do so at home—which got us wondering in turn about the specific appeal of outdoor reading and the origin of the “beach read.”

There’s no one reason why people enjoy reading outside, but a variety of factors throughout history may have shaped the habit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, reading in private was seen as morally suspect, while reading in public presumably left fewer opportunities for transgressive thoughts. The popularization of paperback books in the late 1930s made reading outside easier—even on the front lines of battle. According to the journalist Michelle Dean, the phrase beach read emerged in the 1990s, most likely as a catchy way for publicists to sell their new summer releases.

Reading while on vacation and/or reading outside has remained a popular choice for those who associate both reading and the outdoors with pleasure: I’d recommend Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as an interesting book to read outside.

Write to the Books Briefing team at booksbriefing@theatlantic.com or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. He just bought The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom.

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