Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

We're all stuck in Plasticville, intimately yoked to "a variety of synthetica" that makes our lives more livable. Yet, as the subtitle suggests, our passionate, decades-long affair has an evil flipside: this marvelously malleable material imperils the environment, wrecks our genes, and diminishes our very humanity.


It's powerful stuff. Science writer Susan Freinkel begins her evenhanded investigation of this twisted relationship by trying to count the number of plastic things she touches throughout the course of a day; in just forty-five minutes, she has listed almost as many. Zeroing in on eight common objects lets Freinkel create her own comprehensive narrative polymer. Combs and chairs, for example, show how early experiments created new substances, which allowed for aesthetic innovations. Beauty, formerly the provenance of the wealthy, suddenly became available to everyone.


Disposable lighters and plastic bags, on the other hand, illustrate our descent into a "shop-and-toss" mentality, one that the West has begun rapidly exporting. She visits factory workers making Frisbees in China and anti-plastic activists in California. Ultimately, she favors a sensible approach: acceptance of plastics' ubiquity, followed by behavior modification (carrying reusable bags to the grocery store, reducing consumption, buying products that are built to last, and so on). "In today's world, there are no perfect choices," she writes. "[A]ll we can do is be aware of the tradeoffs." Seriously eco-minded readers might not find much new here, but the recently green and the not-yet-converted will find Plastic: A Toxic Love Story full of facts worth mulling.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


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