By Amanda Ripley
288 pages. Crown.
Amanda Ripley has a remarkable beat at Time magazine—she's in charge of "disaster reporting," and, unfortunately, it's a topic that keeps her exceptionally busy. As she covered the aftermaths of the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, and dozens of other catastrophes, she noticed a disturbing pattern. Governments, corporations, and consultants consistently pour resources into technological upgrades while ignoring a core reality—disasters happen to regular people and yet no one ever really talks to us about what to do when they happen to us. Ripley seeks to reverse this infantilizing dynamic and lays out what we should know about human responses to terrifying events (from kidnapping to stampedes) and how to increase our odds of survival. Here's one example from Ripley's engrossing and lucid new book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why (Crown): "Imagine if [flight attendants explained that] in the event of a rapid decompression, you would only have ten to 15 seconds before you lost consciousness. Aha. Then you might understand why you should put your mask on before you help your child." This is not a handbook of the "always carry a penknife" variety, however—it's an absorbing study of the psychology and physiology of panic, heroism, and trauma. Is there proof of the accuracy of her thesis that if we know more about what we might face, then we'll deal with it more successfully? Well, for me it's the fact that The Unthinkable is not an anxiety-provoking book; it's ultimately uplifting and cheering. Facing the truth about the human capacity for risk and disaster turns out to be a lot less scary than staying in the dark.