Reading guide for The Overstory by Richard Powers

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The Overstory

A Novel

by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers X
The Overstory by Richard Powers
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. Why do you think Powers leads with the story of the chestnut trees?
  2. How has your attitude toward the environment changed in the last 10 years? How about the last 20 years or longer? Has The Overstory changed your perspective?
  3. Have you been an activist? If so for what causes? What triggered your involvement?
  4. Which of the characters do you most relate to and why? Which do you find hardest to understand?
  5. Many of the main characters are associated with a specific tree. Which tree would you pick to represent you? Why?
  6. Doug, Mimi, Adam, Nick and Olivia are all tied together in a plotline revolving around ecoterrorism. How do you think the Brinkman's, Patricia Westerford's and Neelay Mehta's stories tie in with theirs? How are they relevant to the author's message?
  7. Were there particular facts about trees in The Overstory that surprised or impressed you? 
  8. Patricia says that she feels "Girls doing science are like bears riding bikes. Possible, but freakish." How has this changed over the years? To what extent is this still true?
  9. Are there any quotes in the book that resonated with you?
  10. Olivia has a near-death experience, and it changes her forever. She thinks that she hears voices from beyond the world directing her actions. Do you think this is possible? 
  11. Several characters say throughout the novel that humankind is "always wrong."  What do you think they mean, and do you agree?
  12. Olivia enjoys Nick's company in part because he's "comfortable with silence." Are you comfortable with quiet, or do you feel the need to fill the void?  Why do you think you lean the way you do?
  13. Ray and Dorothy thrive on books. "Ray's shelves are organized by topic, Dorothy's by author. He prefers state-of-the-art books with fresh copyrights. She needs to communicate with the distant dead, alien souls as different from her as possible. Once Ray starts a book, he force-marches through to its conclusion, however hard the slog.  Dorothy doesn't mind skipping the author's philosophies…"  How are your shelves organized, and what are your reading habits? Whose style is closer to your own?
  14. Nick thinks that "He has landed in a druid tree cult… Oak veneration at the oracle at Dodona, the druids' groves in Britain and Gaul, Shinto sakaki worship, India's bejeweled wishing trees, Mayan kapoks, Egyptian sycamores, the Chinese sacred ginkgo – all the branches of the word's first religion."  Did you know before reading the novel that so many early cultures valued trees? Why do you think that was? And why is it no longer true, for the most part?
  15. Dennis and Patricia debate the question, "What use is wilderness?"  What's your response?  Do you think forests should be valued more for their contribution to the economy or for their ecological contribution?
  16. Many of the characters break the law in order to bring attention to the plight of trees. Adam states that by committing arson they "accomplished more in two nights than [they] did with years of effort."  Do you think their actions were justified?  Do you think the authorities' responses were reasonable? When is defying the law the right thing to do, if ever?
  17. Patricia continues to talk with her partner even after his death, even though she doesn't believe in an afterlife.  Do you think this is a common reaction to a loved one's death?  Do you ever "talk" to people with whom you've had a connection, who are no longer living?
  18. Doug asks Adam, "What were we hoping to accomplish? What did we think we were doing?" How do you think the various characters would answer this? Did their actions have any lasting impact or were they ultimately futile?
  19. Several times throughout the novel people state, "The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story." What do you think the author means by this? Do you agree?
  20. The night Olivia was injured Adam was sent for help, but he returned without assistance to protect the rest of the group, himself included.  Do you think this was the correct course of action?
  21. Olivia asks Adam, "Do you believe human beings are using resources faster than the world can replace them?"  Later, Patricia says that her book was written when the "planet [was] still young enough to rally."  Do you think an environmental crisis is underway?  If so, do you think the planet can still recover?
  22. Patricia asks, "What's the single best thing a person can do for tomorrow's world?"  How would you answer this?
  23. Nick chooses to spell out the word "Still" in gigantic letters, legible from space.  Why do you think he chose this particular word?
  24. Early on, the author quotes Thoreau: "Old trees are our parents, and our parents' parents, perchance.  If you would learn the secrets of Nature, you must practice more humanity…." What do you think this means?  Do you agree?
  25. Nick reads that "Beliefs should not be considered delusional if they are in keeping with societal norms." Do you think this is a valid definition? Based on it, who among the characters do you think is delusional? 
  26. Adam's thesis is about the "bystander effect." How do you think this influences his actions?  How can we avoid being bystanders?
  27. Do you think Adam should have fought his conviction for his family's sake, or was he right to accept his responsibility for the crimes committed?
  28. As Mimi's father leaves China, his father tells him that "You can't come back to something that is gone." Is this true even if your home hasn't been destroyed? Is "home" ever still really there after one has left?
  29. Mimi thinks, "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." Have you ever had a moment of clarity, where you felt you knew exactly what you were meant to be doing? If so, how did it play out in your life?
  30. How do you think the main characters' lives would have transpired had Olivia not died? 

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Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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