The World Without Us

The World Without Us

by Alan Weisman

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

A penetrating, page-turning tour of a post-human Earth

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman offers an utterly original approach to questions of humanity's impact on the planet: he asks us to envision our Earth, without us.In this far-reaching narrative, Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence; which everyday items may become immortalized as fossils; how copper pipes and wiring would be crushed into mere seams of reddish rock; why some of our earliest buildings might be the last architecture left; and how plastic, bronze sculpture, radio waves, and some man-made molecules may be our most lasting gifts to the universe.
The World Without Us reveals how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York's subways would start eroding the city's foundations, and how, as the world's cities crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones. It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious leaders from rabbis to the Dali Lama, and paleontologists---who describe a prehuman world inhabited by megafauna like giant sloths that stood taller than mammoths---Weisman illustrates what the planet might be like today, if not for us.
From places already devoid of humans (a last fragment of primeval European forest; the Korean DMZ; Chernobyl), Weisman reveals Earth's tremendous capacity for self-healing. As he shows which human devastations are indelible, and which examples of our highest art and culture would endure longest, Weisman's narrative ultimately drives toward a radical but persuasive solution that needn't depend on our demise. It is narrative nonfiction at its finest, and in posing an irresistible concept with both gravity and a highly readable touch, it looks deeply at our effects on the planet in a way that no other book has.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429917216
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/10/2007
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 175,662
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alan Weisman is an award-winning journalist whose reports have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, and on NPR, among others. A former contributing editor to The Los Angeles Times Magazine, he is a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions and teaches international journalism at the University of Arizona. His essay "Earth Without People" (Discover magazine, February 2005), on which The World Without Us expands, was selected for Best American Science Writing 2006.

Alan Weisman teaches international journalism at the University of Arizona. He is also an award-winning journalist whose reports have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, and on NPR, among others. Formerly a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, he is now a senior radio producer for Homelands Productions. He is the author of The World Without Us.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Lingering Scent of Eden

You may never have heard of the Bialowieza Puszcza. But if you were raised somewhere in the temperate swathe that crosses much of North America, Japan, Korea, Russia, several former Soviet republics, parts of China, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe—including the British Isles—something within you remembers it. If instead you were born to tundra or desert,subtropics or tropics, pampas or savannas, there are still places on Earth kindred to this puszcza to stir your memory, too. Puszcza, an old Polish word, means forest primeval. Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, the half-million acres of the Bialowieza Puszcza contain Europe’s last remaining fragment of old-growth, lowland wilderness. Think of themisty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read you the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Here, ash and linden trees tower nearly 150 feet, their huge canopies shading a moist, tangled understory of hornbeams, ferns, swamp alders and crockery-sized fungi. Oaks, shrouded with half a millennium of moss, grow so immense here that great spotted woodpeckers store spruce cones in their three-inch-deep bark furrows. The air, thick and cool, is draped with silence that parts briefly for a nutcracker’s croak, a pygmy owl’s low whistle, or a wolf’s wail, then returns to stillness.

The fragrance that wafts from eons of accumulated mulch in the forest’s core hearkens to fertility’s very origins. In the Bialowieza, the profusion of life owes much to all that is dead. Almost a quarter of the organic mass aboveground is inassorted stages of decay—more than 50 cubic yards of decomposing trunks and fallen branches on every acre, nourishing thousands of species of mushrooms, lichens, bark beetles, grubs, and microbes that are missing from the orderly, managed woodlands that pass as forests elsewhere.

Together those species stock a sylvan larder that provides for weasels, pine martens, raccoons, badgers, otters, fox, lynx,wolves, roe deer, elk, and eagles. More kinds of life are found here than anywhere else on the continent—yet there are no surrounding mountains or sheltering valleys to form unique niches for endemic species. The Bialowieza Puszcza is simplya relic of what once stretched east to Siberia and west to Ireland.

The existence in Europe of such a legacy of unbroken biological antiquity owes, unsurprisingly, to high privilege. During the 14th century, a Lithuanian duke named Jagiello, having successfully allied his grand duchy with the Kingdom of Poland, declared the forest a royal hunting preserve. For centuries, it stayed that way. When the Polish-Lithuanian unionwas finally subsumed by Russia, the Bialowieza became the private domain of the tsars. Although occupying Germans took lumber and slaughtered game during World War I, a pristine core was left intact, which in 1921 became a Polish national park. The timber pillaging resumed briefly under the Soviets, but when the Nazis invaded, a nature fanatic named Hermann Göring decreed the entire preserve off-limits, except by his pleasure.

Following World War II, a reportedly drunken Josef Stalin agreed one evening in Warsaw to let Poland retain two-.fifths of the forest. Little else changed under communist rule, except for construction of some elite hunting dachas—in one of which,Viskuli, an agreement was signed in 1991 dissolving the Soviet Union into free states. Yet, as it turns out, this ancient sanctuary is more threatened under Polish democracy and Belarusian independence than it was during seven centuries of monarchs and dictators. Forestry ministries in both countries tout increased management to preserve the Puszcza’s health. Management, however, often turns out to be a euphemism for culling—and selling—mature hardwoods that otherwise would one day return a windfall of nutrients to the forest.

It is startling to think that all Europe once looked like this Puszcza. To enter it is to realize that most of us were bred to a pale copy of what nature intended. Seeing alders with trunks seven feet wide, or walking through stands of the tallest trees here—gigantic Norway spruce, shaggy as Methuselah—should seem as exotic as the Amazon or Antarctica to someone raised among the comparatively puny, second-growth woodlands found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Instead, what’s astonishing is how primally familiar it feels. And, on some cellular level, how complete.

Andrzej Bobiec recognized it instantly. As a forestry student in Krakow, he’d been trained to manage forests for maximum productivity, which included removing excess organic litter lest it harbor pests like bark beetles. Then, on a visit here he was stunned to discover 10 times more biodiversity than in any forest he’d ever seen.

It was the only place left with all nine European woodpecker species, because, he realized, some of them only nest in hollow, dying trees. They can’t survive in managed forests, he argued to his forestry professors. “The Bialowieza Puszcza has managed itself perfectly well for millennia.

The husky, bearded young Polish forester became instead a forest ecologist. He was hired by the Polish national park service. Eventually, he was .red for protesting management plans that chipped ever closer to the pristine core of the Puszcza. In various international journals, he blistered official policies that asserted that forests will die without our thoughtful help, or that justified cutting timber in the Bialowieza’s surrounding buffer to reestablish the primeval character of stands. Such convoluted thinking, he accused, was rampant among Europeans who have hardly any memory of forested wilderness.

To keep his own memory connected, for years he daily laced his leather boots and hiked through his beloved Puszcza. Yet although he ferociously defends those parts of this forest still undisturbed by man, Andrzej Bobiec can’t help being seduced by his own human nature.

Alone in the woods, Bobiec enters into communion with fellow Homo sapiens through the ages. A wilderness this pure is a blank slate to record human passage: a record he has learned to read. Charcoal layers in the soil show him where gamesmen onceused fire to clear parts of the forest for browse. Stands of birch and trembling aspen attest to a time when Jagiello’s descendants were distracted from hunting, perhaps by war, long enough for these sun-seeking species to recolonize game clearings. In their shade grow telltale seedlings of the hardwoods that were here before them. Gradually, these will crowd out thebirch and aspen, until it will be as if they were never gone.

Whenever Bobiec happens on an anomalous shrub like hawthorn or on an old apple tree, he knows he’s in the presence of the ghost of a log house long ago devoured by the same microbes that can turn the giant trees here back into soil. Any lone, massive oak he finds growing from a low, clover-covered mound marks a crematorium. Its roots have drawn nourishment from the ashes of Slavic ancestors of today’s Belorusians, who came from the east 900 years ago. On the northwest edge of the forest,Jews from five surrounding shtetls buried their dead. Their sandstone and granite headstones from the 1850s, mossy and tumbled by roots, have already worn so smooth that they’ve begun to resemble the pebbles left by their mourning relatives, who themselves long ago departed.

Andrzej Bobiec passes through a blue-green glade of Scots pine, barely a mile from the Belarusian border. The waning October afternoon is so hushed, he can hear snowflakes alight. Suddenly, there’s a crashing in the underbrush, and a dozen wisent—Bison bonasus, European bison—burst from where they’ve been browsing on young shoots. Steaming and pawing, their huge black eyes glance just long enough for them to do what their own ancestors discovered they must upon encountering one of these deceptively frail bipeds: they flee.

Just 600 wisent remain in the wild, nearly all of them here—or just half, depending on what’s meant by here. An iron curtain bisects this paradise, erected by the Soviets in 1980 along the border to thwart escapees to Poland’s renegade Solidaritymovement. Although wolves dig under it, and roe deer and elk are believed to leap it, the herd of these largest of Europe’smammals the world without us remains divided, and with it, its gene pool—divided and mortally diminished, some zoologists fear. Once, following World War I, bison from zoos were brought here to replenish a species nearly extirpated by hungry soldiers. Now, a remnant of a Cold War threatens them again.

Belarus, which well after communism’s collapse has yet to remove statues of Lenin, also shows no inclination to dismantle the fence, especially as Poland’s border is now the European Union’s. Although just 14 kilometers separate the two countries’ park headquarters, to see the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, as it is called in Belorusian, a foreign visitor must drive 100 miles south, take a train across the border to the city of Brest, submit to pointless interrogation, and hire a car to drive back north. Andrzej Bobiec’s Belorusian counterpart and fellow activist, Heorhi Kazulka, is a pale, sallow invertebrate biologist and former deputy director of Belarus’s side of the primeval forest. He was also .red by his own country’s park service, for challenging one of the latest park additions—a sawmill. He cannot risk being seen with Westerners. Inside the Brezhnev-era tenement where he lives at the forest’s edge, he apologetically offers visitors tea and discusses his dream of an international peace park where bison and moose would roam and breed freely.

The Pushcha’s colossal trees are the same as those in Poland; the same buttercups, lichens, and enormous oak leaves; the same circling white-tailed eagles, heedless of the razor-wire barrier below. In fact, on both sides, the forest is actually growing, as peasant populations leave shrinking villages for cities. In this moist climate, birch and aspen quickly invade their fallow potato fields; within just two decades, farmland gives way to woodland. Under the canopy of the pioneering trees, oak, maple, linden, elm, and spruce regenerate. Given 500 years without people, a true forest could return.

The thought of rural Europe reverting one day to original forest is heartening. But unless the last humans remember to first remove Belarus’s iron curtain, its bison may wither away with them.

Excerpted from The World Without Us. By Alan Weisman
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman.
Published in the United States by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.

Table of Contents


Prelude: A Monkey Koan,
1 A Lingering Scent of Eden,
2 Unbuilding Our Home,
3 The City Without Us,
4 The World Just Before Us,
5 The Lost Menagerie,
6 The African Paradox,
7 What Falls Apart,
8 What Lasts,
9 Polymers Are Forever,
10 The Petro Patch,
11 The World Without Farms,
12 The Fate of Ancient and Modern Wonders of the World,
13 The World Without War,
14 Wings Without Us,
15 Hot Legacy,
16 Our Geologic Record,
17 Where Do We Go from Here?,
18 Art Beyond Us,
19 The Sea Cradle,
Coda: Our Earth, Our Souls,
Select Bibliography,

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The World Without Us 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 78 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This imaginative depiction of the world without human beings is truly astounding! not only do we receive brief history of man, but also what history would be like without man. one of the most enthralling and thought provoking books I have ever read. I truly could not put it down. The imagery used creates a world never thought of before. My respect for nature has always been high, but Weisman opened my eyes to things I had never imagined or thought possible. truly remarkable, a must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that this book was very well written. The author wrote very well in specific detail about many of the things that humans have impacted on the earth such as animals, the environment, and many more. He discusses what would happen to the world if humans were to suddenly disappear and what impact we would leave on the world such as heavy metals in the soil, nuclear waste and more. It was a very good book and i encourage others to read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The synopsis says: A penetrating take on how our planet would respond without the relentless pressure of the human presence. Everyone focuses on the overt theme...what happens if we all should disappear suddenly. Weisman's research is thorough and fascinating, his writing concise and illustrative. BUT by illustrating what happens to our world AFTER we have disappeared, Weisman clearly and devastatingly outlines just how negative human impact has been on the earth. In this, the book is one of the most persuasive tomes on the environment and environmentalism I've yet to read. It's a short leap, in my mind, from our current predicament to the potential solution proposed in the last few pages. Sadly, I think humans won't be disciplined enough to stick to the recommendation of one woman - one child.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is a very good book and explains not only the things we know about but also things we didnt know about. P.S. the meaning of the book is to show what things would be like without man-kind. and we are poisoning mother Earth! hence Global Warming- its our fault whether people want to admit it or not. You dont have to hate the human race to understand that human kind is the major reason why other species are dying, the climate is changing, and people are dying.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This has to be the most convincing contemporary book about the environment since the 1960's. It's frightening yet somehow beautiful. We have a LOT to think about as human beings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very good read. Explains how the world would be like without us now and how it would be if we never existed. Many interesting chapters and facts much this book awesome. A Must Read for those you want to learn more about this earth and its processes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
To be honest, before I purchased this book, I thought it would be a more step by step analysis of how long it would take for structures to fall apart and details such as how many pets would die within our vacant houses, etc. The book has a much more vast approach detailing all types of environments, species and human artifacts. It is more philosophical, fact filled and beautiful than I expected. The author does illuminate how subways, roads ,and houses will fare along with how nature will respond to our absence. That said, the chapters on plastics, toxins and nuclear waste were very disturbing. I've just finished reading this powerful work and am quite depressed regarding our past and present activities. Mr. Wiseman however ends with a positive note and as he is obviously more knowledgeable than myself, I'll rely on his prognosis. If you are at all interested in learning about human impact upon the earth and its creatures, you will not be disappointed.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing 3 days ago
The premise of the book -- if humans were to disappear all at once, what would happen to the world -- is a really interesting idea, and the author's discursive approach to the topic visits interesting places and people. It felt to me that the question could have been pushed further: how long, really, will our various structures and impacts really last after we stop maintaining them; what identifiable signs will we leave in the geologic record, and how would a future archaeologist (presumably from a newly evolved or extra-terrestrial species) come to learn about us, or could they; how does the vision of a world without us suggest we should prioritize current environmental challenges. The book offers some answers to each of these -- buildings won't last long; nuclear waste and bronze statutes will last a very long time; lowering the overall human population would be a very good idea, if we can pull it off -- but often the answers felt more anecdotal than searching. It's still an impressive exercise, and well worth reading. I'd have greatly appreciated the inclusion of a short time line showing the relative spans it will take for various human traces to be worn away; a graphical representation of this would have be helpful in sorting out the various orders of magnitude.
dr_zirk on LibraryThing 3 days ago
The World Without Us is an interesting thought exercise exploring what would happen to our planet if all of humanity were suddenly to disappear in the proverbial puff of smoke. While the title might lead you to believe that Alan Weisman is on some sort of extreme ecological crusade to eliminate Homo sapiens, he is actually much more interested in understanding what is temporary and what is permanent among the myriad creations of humanity. The sad part is that the most permanent of our creations are often the most deadly, whether they take the form of nuclear waste or the toxic effluents of heavy industry. In the end, Weisman proposes a harmonious solution which allows humanity to continue, while restoring a measure of relief to natural systems and non-human species. His proposal of limiting each woman to a single child (in order to eventually decrease the human population) is sensible, reasonable, and hardly extremist. The sad part is that one can't help but think that even such a reasonable proposal has no hope of ever seeing the light of day.
rhelton on LibraryThing 3 days ago
Very interesting read. A little dry in spots, but overall it's one of those books that you feel smarter having read!
mojomomma on LibraryThing 3 days ago
This is a bit of a stretch, but a fascinating look at what might happen if human simply disappear from the earth. We have impacted the earth in some odd and unexpected ways and our mastery of nature is more fragile and flimsy than we suppose. A great read that echos some of Kingsolver's themes from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. If you liked that one, you'll like this one, too.
brianinbuffalo on LibraryThing 3 days ago
When I heard about this book, I couldn't wait to delve into Weisman's work. Despite the timely and harrowing premise, I'm disappointed to say the "The World Without Us" just didn't work for me. In some overly-detailed sections, I sensed that one would have to be a civil engineer, geologist, anthropologist or some other specialist in order to truly appreciate the book. One reivewer aptly suugested that the author "wandered from the subject" much too often. I would love to see Weisman tackle this fascinating topic in an abbreviated format -- a nonfiction "novella", if you will. Students of science undoubtedly would welcome the author's elaborate explanations and wordy descriptions. But others might find this approach somewhat inaccessible. Still, the book chronicles the damage we've done to Planet Earth. One has to give Weisman credit for his painstaking research.
We_Recommend on LibraryThing 3 days ago
This is definitely the best book I've read all year. Written in an engaging albeit wandering manner, the book presents the environmental impact of humans in a very non-traditional light. Rather than bemoaning the destruction of the planet and the hopelessness of the situation, Weisman speculates about how the earth would do if we suddenly weren't here. He looks at a broad range of changes, from the collapse of New York to the healing of the Panama Canal. At times, I found the book moving a bit far off the futurist speculation and getting into evolution and the past but eventually it got back on track. There was also some interesting speculation about what North America might have been like if humans had never existed. I found this book to be very thought provoking and informative. Certainly it's made me want to read more about our interaction with the planet and how some of our more dangerous habits as humans (such as making everything plastic) might be mitigated. That's the highest compliment to any book, I think, when it inspires more reading.
PDE on LibraryThing 3 days ago
An amazing book. The author's speculation of the fate of the planet if humans suddenly disappeared reveals painful pictures of what we have done to the only world we have. Every other species, plant or animal, has good reason to see homo sapiens as the enemy, the spoiler, the worst result of evolution imaginable. Can we survive the crisis we have created? This book is a match with "The Chaos Point", an equally disturbing look at where we are and how close to the precipice we have come.
pbirch01 on LibraryThing 3 days ago
This book really caught me by surprise. I was expecting another environmentalist rant about how we are destroying the earth and how evil mankind is. And yet, the more I read the more I wanted to read it. Each chapter is a deviation from the one before it and ultimately showing a larger picture about the current state of the planet. Weisman covers a wide range of topics and its obvious to the reader that he enjoyed researching each topic. Weisman is also able to take many topics and make them easier to visualize. Walking outside after reading this I could not help but notice how many tufts of grass and roots were breaking through the asphalt. I think that this is a good example of the possibilities of what will happen when humans leave and nature takes control of the planet again.
barleywine on LibraryThing 3 days ago
An interesting read. Not only does it speculate as to what would happen if humans suddenly left the earth, but it also explains how we have impacted the earth. How we have added so much to the environment. The discussion on the effects of plastics is very interesting. One only hopes that the human race will take more care of the planet.
yarnspinner on LibraryThing 3 days ago
Imagine that we all disappeared from the face of the earth. What will happen to our cities, buildings and other structures? How long will it take? This book may be the prediction or the warning, but it is show us how we impact on our planet and what we can except from nature in return.
Mendoza on LibraryThing 3 days ago
A remarkable book. Truly.In this truly imaginative hybrid of actual science the author takes us into a future world (New York City) suddenly depopulated of humans and while giving us history on what brought NYC to it's present day it moves forward with analyzing what nature will do without our influence and how long it will take to break down our leavings and what will be remain after time.A thuroughly enjoyable read and one that makes me realize that for all our advances - the human race isn't as permanent as we assume.
Coelacanth on LibraryThing 3 days ago
This wanders too far from its subject too often, but is mostly interesting. It reads like it was assembled from three or four good magazine articles. I wish it spent more time on animals and plants, and less on buildings.
BucksLRC1 on LibraryThing 3 days ago
This is a book without parallel. Assuming the cause is not some radical, environment-destroying event, what would happen to all that we have built and done if we were to vanish tomorrow? This book is a curious yet perfect blend of outright information presentation and realistic extrapolation. It is literally impossible to overstate this book's value, impact, or presentation. Weisman's "The World Without Us" is truly one of those books you cannot surrender until it is finished, and keeps surprising you all the way through. Although the phrase is badly overused, this book really IS a "Must Read!"
adamallen on LibraryThing 3 days ago
The World Without Us is a book which intends to describe how nature would go about reclaiming New York City should humans suddenly cease to exist. While the concept intrigued me and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, I found the book to be disjointed and quite frankly somewhat boring. Let me be clear in that it wasn't bad. It was more along the lines of mediocre. Nonetheless, I finally stopped reading it on page 75.You might be saying, "Everyone else has said how riveting and breathtaking it is. They say it has a chance to change people and it will be a classic - so explain your low review." OK, fine.Mr. Weisman spends more of his time explaining evolution than he does explaining what will come of Earth should we leave it. He does get around to "the world without us" but when he does, it comes across as almost an afterthought. He spends three-quarters of a chapter talking about the study of apes by researchers in Africa and then 5 pages on what that means should humans disappear from NYC. He spends three-quarters of a chapter describing how foreign plant species made it to the U.S. and then 7 pages talking about how the battle would play out between those species and the native plants in Central Park should we vanish. In other words, the book is more about how we got to this point (i.e. Earth & man's evolution) than "The World Without Us". That aspect of it comes across as secondary. I felt a more appropriate title might have been, "The World as a Result of Us". I recognize the importance to support your argument. I'll freely admit that had he done nothing but say, "this would happen, and this would happen, and so would this" with no supporting evidence, I'd be writing an equally disappointing review. However, this is a brave book to attempt and I felt like he just didn't get there. I also found the attempt at going back and forth between the past (how we got here) and the future (after we're gone) to be disjointed. It didn't flow well for me. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it just never hooked me. It got to the point that reading it became somewhat tedious. While the evolutionary background was interesting, I kept thinking "get to the point".I'm a fan of McKibben (who has a quote featured on the front of the book) and I really liked the concept here. It just never quite did it for me. Maybe it will for you. Apparently most people love it.
bingereader on LibraryThing 3 days ago
The World Without Us is an interesting extrapolation of a What if? scenario that looks forward rather than backward into history.Though an agenda is clear in the writing, Wiesman doesn't belabor the issue or beat you over the head with the "consequences of our actions" but rather paints an alternate reality of the world without us.With a easily readable style and pace, the book reads at times like non-fiction Sci-Fi and caters to a broad audience. Personally, I found the book equal parts entertainment and enlightenment as I imagined the future that is painted by the author. As to the "accuracy" of his extrapolations, I will leave that to more learned readers to decide; however, his scenarios appear plausible and based on some degree of research.
Cygnus555 on LibraryThing 3 days ago
Very sobering and powerful book. The world will be fine... but will we? Sure made me think of plastic in another way... RECYCLE!!!
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing 3 days ago
The World Without Us is a really interesting concept, that could get a little bit dry at times. Weisman writes about all of the ways in which our production and consumption now will linger - or not - in the world later, after we're gone. So most of it isn't so much a "thought experiment" (as the cover on my copy proclaims it to be) as an intelligent piece of writing against pollution, and for awareness for conservation. I learned a lot from the book, but it wasn't as engaging as I had hoped it would be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago