The Overstory by Richard Powers

Book Guide and Discussion Questions


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The Overstory Book Guide—February 26th Session, Wednesday, 6-7:30pm

Location: Grafton Public Library

A great way to approach a discussion about “The Overstory” is to focus on just one of the nine characters in-depth, as they move through the book. Think about which character’s story is most compelling to you and why. Notice how or if your character changes and how they interact with others in the narrative. Decide if you can understand or relate to your chosen character’s decisions and motivations.  If time allows in our discussion, we may split up into sub-groups for a time, based on your chosen characters.

Book Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Richard Powers chose the title “The Overstory”?


  1. What was your experience with trees as a child, and what has it been as an adult? Have trees shaped your life in any meaningful way? Do you have a favorite tree?


  1. Adam initially builds his career on studying the faults in human brains, such as confirmation bias and the conflation of correlation with causality. Meanwhile, Douglas is convinced that humans’ greatest flaw is mistaking agreement for truth. What questions does this book ask about human failings?


  1. What does Powers mean when he describes humans as “trapped in blinkered bodies”?


  1. What do you make of the voices Olivia hears, and her sense of conviction that “the most wondrous products of four billion years of life” need our help?


  1. Did this book cause you to do any further research on trees or any other topics or search for information about the historical events mentioned in the book? What did you discover?


  1. It is a difficult moment for Douglas when he learns that all of his years of planting trees have only allowed companies to increase its annual allowable cut. How did this book make you think differently, if at all, about clear-cutting? Do you see it happening in your own community?


  1. What are you learning about trees that you didn’t know before? Did some of Patricia’s research surprise you, either about the “giving trees” or the ways dead trees contribute to forests? Did any of it change the way you see trees?


  1. Patricia describes trees and humans as being “at war” over land and water and the atmosphere, and that she can see “which side will lose by winning.” What does she mean by that?


  1. The book is divided into four parts: “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” What is the significance of each section? Were you surprised when the stories began to intertwine?


  1. Were you surprised by the lengths that Adam, Olivia, Nicholas, Mimi and Douglas went to try to wake people up to the destruction of forests? What did you think of their tactics?


  1. What have you read in the news lately that mirrors the stories in “The Overstory”? How is “The Overstory” playing out in real life in your own community?


  1. What is the significance of the worlds Neelay creates within his game, “Mastery”?


  1. What was your opinion of “direct action” as a means of effective activism before the book? What is your opinion after reading it? Do you think it should play a role in addressing the destruction of our planet?


  1. Toward the end of the book, Dorothy is arrested for her determination to let her yard grow wild. Did this book change how you see your own backyard?


  1. As the book closes, Mimi seems to say that the world as it has been is ending and a new one will begin. Does that ring true to you? How does that make you feel?


  1. Richard Powers writes: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Do you agree? Did any part of this story change your mind?