CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I think I was 11 years old -- too young, probably, to contemplate the end of the world.
But there it was, in front of me. I'd been browsing the library shelves at South Junior High School and had stumbled across "When Worlds Collide," a 1933 tale by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Two rogue planets are discovered rushing toward Earth, and a small group of scientists and others make plans to escape to one of the new planets after Earth is destroyed.
Despite some wooden dialogue and some very unfortunate ethnic stereotypes, I devoured the book. My adolescent mind was blown. They destroyed the Earth. It was just ... gone.
I was remembering that book recently, as the end of the world approaches -- what, you haven't heard? According to some of our finest scholars, the world is going to end on Dec. 21, 2012. The Mayans said so. (Well, maybe they said so. Hard to tell what a civilization that died out centuries ago was getting at, if they were getting at anything at all.)
But if the Mayans did, in fact, contemplate the end of the world and write down their thoughts about it, they wouldn't be the first. Ever since we could first record stories, and probably before then, humans have wondered about the end of the planet and/or humanity.
The flood of Noah (and the very similar flood of Gilgamesh), boiled down to its essentials, is an apocalyptic story. So is the book of Revelation. The Vikings told of Ragnarok, which doubled as an Armageddon tale and a creation myth. More recently, such noted authors as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells have written about the end of the human race.
With its very real threat of nuclear annihilation, the Cold War produced a spate of books about the apocalypse and what comes after. These are the ones that were in libraries and bookstores when I was a kid, so they're the ones I grew up on: "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter Miller; "Alas, Babylon" by Pat Frank; "On the Beach" by Nevil Shute. Later, I remember getting hold of "Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban; "Earth Abides" by George Stewart and "Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke, among many others. You can even play the apocalypse for laughs: Douglas Adams began "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by having the Earth demolished for an interstellar bypass.
But it seems like the end of the world has never been in such vogue in literature as it has been these past couple of decades. Many reasons have been suggested, including the hysteria in some corners about the new millennium and the vulnerability Americans felt after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
For whatever reason, the apocalypse is pretty popular nowadays. If it's not aliens come to eliminate and take our planet, it's a comet ready to crash into the Earth and kill us off like the dinosaurs. Disease is a favorite, either wiping out the population altogether or turning us into mindless zombies. Or the vampires will take over, or the machines will grow to resent their human makers, or ... well, there are any number of ways to bring about the end of the world.
Perhaps ironically, the one recent book that sticks out for me doesn't actually say what ended the world. "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy is a stunning piece of work: the story of a father and son walking across a ruined America, drawn by the faintest glimmer of hope offered by the sea. I read that book when it first came out -- in a late September, when the weather was turning colder and the leaves were falling from the trees. In retrospect, maybe I should have waited until the following summer to read it. That was one bleak book.
But even the end of the world can become trite, and some watchers of literary and cultural trends believe the apocalypse is about to become passé. How many times can you kill off the human race (or most of it) before it starts to lose its emotional impact? Writers, and readers, will move on -- if we're still here on Dec. 22.