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Coal: A Human History [Paperback]

by Barbara Freese
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 27, 2004 0142000981 978-0142000984

In this remarkable book, Barbara Freese takes us on a rich historical journey that begins hundreds of millions of years ago and spans the globe. Prized as “the best stone in Britain” by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, expanded frontiers, and sparked social movements, and still powers our electric grid. Yet coal’s world-changing power has come at a tremendous price, including centuries of blackening our skies and lungs—and now the dangerous warming of our global climate. Ranging from the “great stinking fogs” of London to the rat-infested coal mines of Pennsylvania, from the impoverished slums of Manchester to the toxic streets of Beijing, Coal is a captivating narrative about an ordinary substance with an extraordinary impact on human civilization.


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Coal has been both lauded for its efficiency as a heating fuel and maligned for the lung-wrenching black smoke it gives off. In her first book, Freese, an assistant attorney general of Minnesota (where she helps enforce environmental laws), offers an exquisite chronicle of the rise and fall of this bituminous black mineral. Both the Romans and the Chinese used coal ornamentally long before they discovered its flammable properties. Once its use as a heating source was discovered in early Roman Britain, coal replaced wood as Britain's primary energy source. The jet-black mineral spurred the Industrial Revolution and inspired the invention of the steam engine and the railway. Freese narrates the discovery of coal in the colonies, the development of the first U.S. coal town, Pittsburgh, and the history of coal in China. Despite its allure as a cheap and warm energy source, coal carries a high environmental cost. Burning it produces sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide in such quantities that, during the Clinton administration, the EPA targeted coal-burning power plants as the single worst air polluters. Using EPA studies, Freese shows that coal emissions kill about 30,000 people a year, causing nearly as many deaths as traffic accidents and more than homicides and AIDS. The author contends that alternate energy sources must be found to ensure a healthier environment for future generations. Part history and part environmental argument, Freese's elegant book teaches an important lesson about the interdependence of humans and their natural environment both for good and ill throughout history.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Deleterious to health and beneficial to wealth, coal contains a tension that makes its story a compelling one. Freese is a former attorney general of Minnesota, who became interested in the flammable rock's history during her tenure. After a routine description of coal's geological formation, Freese invigorates her narrative with its combustion in England. Even in the 1500s, its noxiousness provoked denunciation, but with Britannia's forests all but consumed, it became everybody's heat source. Freese is quite succinct in describing coal's critical role in sparking the Industrial Revolution, whose side effects included a troglodytic existence for miners and suffocating fogs for Manchester and London. The author then covers America's seduction by coal, and presently China's, culminating with her advocating reduction of coal's primary pollutants, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and its ultimate banishment as an energy source. Freese's combination of labor and technological history is fluid and evenhanded; she is a solid inductee into the popular club of "biographers" of materials such as salt (Mark Kurlansky) and water (Philip Ball). Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (January 27, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142000981
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142000984
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #468,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Coal dust July 3, 2003
Format:Hardcover
I moved back to the United States after living for about 8 years in Manchester, England. Even today, you can still identify the effects of coal in Manchester--from the many chimneys around the Northern landscape, to the coal-blackened Victorian warehouses. When I bought a house there, I pulled-up carpets that covered wood floors since 1911, and I myself was covered with coal dust that accumulated over the decades. Finally, in the North of England, you still have a few coal mining villages and towns that have very strong cultures. So I was aware of coal when I lived there, and had become curious.
Freese's book is an excellent and engaging history of the history of coal and its relationship to the history of three nations: The United Kingdom, the United States, and China. She writes exceptionally fluidly, with, at once, broad sweeps and minute details that keep you both interetsed and informed. She also has a lovely dry sense of humor. Her chapter on Manchester, by the way, is excellent.
The book isn't academic (to her credit), but nor is it a vapid popular account. Instead, Freese has written a book that does the nearly impossible in that it is well-researched, historically accurate, engaging almost, but not, to the point of being chatty. I couldn't put it down. What it lacks, by way of an academic angle, is a discussion of what else had been written in the past about the history of coal, as well as a theoretical approach. This is hardly a criticism because that really isn't the intention of this book. In fact, believe the book would have suffered had she taken this approach.
I agree with another reviewer who suggested that Freese didn't know how to end the book--although I did find her discussion of alternatives to coal to be compelling. There are two typos in the book that evaded the copy editor, but otherwise this book is a small masterpiece. You will enjoy it.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Coal's role in chemisty neglected September 6, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I found this book to be well-written in a literary sense. While correctly critical of coal where justified, Freese does not descend into partisan polemic and cliche when discussing difficult issues.

The book covers nearly all the major issues that coal has faced over the centuries - including the little-recognised fact that Europe went through an energy crisis as forests were depleted before coal came into widespread use hundreds of years ago.

However, I was surprised that Freese did not cover the major role that coal played in the development of organic chemical industries based on coal liquids in the 19th century.

We owe synthetic dyes and major advances in the understanding of organic chemistry to coal liquid by-products of coke and gas making in the 19th century.

Solvents such as benzene were also first made from coal tars.

The misuse of these chemicals also led to major advances in the understanding of occupational health and epidemiology - some of the most significant medical advances of the 20th century.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This book discusses the history of coal as a two-edged sword, as both a creator and a destroyer. Freese is extraordinary in her history of coal and its impact on England, and then on how coal has impacted American history as well.

The social effects of coal consumption for the last five centuries has been immense and far-reaching -- allowing human comfort in otherwise unlivable areas, later allowing its energy to be harnessed for transportation and then electric power. That this comes at an astonishing price in terms of human lungs comes as no surprise but Freese's narrative is vivid, subtle, and convincing.

The last chapters on China and the future of coal read more anecdotally, more like a travelogue, so they seem a bit disjointed from the first part of the book. That's the cost of a shift from historical writing into contemporary issues and speculation on the future impact of coal, which I do think Freese has accomplished with measure and balance.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Center-left analysis of coal October 26, 2005
Format:Paperback
This book is a good introduction to the history of coal and issues surrounding its use. It's not an extensive history of all of its uses as other reviewers have observed and the author's credentials as an enviromental lawyer let you know which side of the fence she stands on. However, she makes a good try at presenting a balanced viewpoint, and usually succeeds. The book is very readable, and for anyone with an interest in energy issues, it should be entertaining.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Well balanced book March 18, 2004
By J. head
Format:Hardcover
A very good account of the history of coal, The author explains the basics, the different types of coal and how they are formed, The book progresses onto early societies and their treatment of the "burning stones". As can be expected the major part of the book is about the industrial revolution and the struggle of cities such as London and Pittsburg to maintain a habital city..The coal industry became "King Coal" and became the industrial lifeblood in many countries. A vital industry over which industrial sectors were formed and labor rights were gained. The Final chapters of the book deal with the pollution problems brought on by the burning coal. Two serious points are brought up;
1) Society can engineer away most of the pollution problems to the point where coal approaches almost perfect combustion. It will result in a much higher cost to utilize coal, and perfect combustion will still leave us with a massive Carbon dioxide output problem. Perhaps accelerating the global warming scenarios
2)The China question, as a large developing nation China is also heavily dependent on coal as a cheap and readily available energy source, and because of China's scarce resources it applies minimal polution control.
This combination does not bode well for the future. This reader thought the material was presented in a very professional manner. It was not a "the sky is falling" type of book. It is in fact a good book to obtain a balanced view. It explains how humans have lived with coal in the past and states that societies may have major decisions to make in the future.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Just Too Boring
It is too boring. I didn't even get past the sixth chapter. But , it does have historic events. I hate it so much. It makes me feel so bad for the author. Read more
Published 14 days ago by Delshawn Garner
4.0 out of 5 stars Coal:A human history. 4 stars.
Great history lesson as well as information I never knew.Being from Pittsburgh with a father who worked the mines ,made this read more personal. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Pamela E. Burig
3.0 out of 5 stars I wanted more
This is a very lightweight history about coal and its emergence and then leadership in supplying heat and energy. Read more
Published 6 months ago by ram
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous Gem of a Book
Freese packed a remarkable amount of wonderful history into this diminutive book. A total joy to read. I had no idea how influential coal was to human history. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Joshua Kahan
4.0 out of 5 stars Coal
It was purchased for a school reading program. It was easy to read and informative. Would recommend it for students.
Published 7 months ago by Julie Chrislip
3.0 out of 5 stars half brilliant, the other half fit to burn
I found the middle part of the book fascinating - how coal shaped human life and technological history in Britain and in America; absolutely informative. Read more
Published 9 months ago by xtic
3.0 out of 5 stars Freese made coal an interesting subject matter, but the notes section...
Who would have known that coal had such an interesting history? I did not know that before it was used as a fuel or heat source, the Romans used coal to make jewellery. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Craig Rowland
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview on the historical importance of coal
For those interested in world history, this book fills in many blanks. It is a pleasurable read, full of innumerable factoids and insights about how coal has affected human... Read more
Published 22 months ago by George Fulmore
5.0 out of 5 stars A Surprisingly Human History
I am not sure I would be aware of this remarkable book had I not had the fortune to share office space with Eric Grunebaum, one of the producers of a documentary film called "The... Read more
Published on April 9, 2012 by Alan L. Chase
3.0 out of 5 stars Lots of good info
Pretty interesting micro-history about coal and how it influenced (and continues to influence) history. Read more
Published on July 6, 2011 by J. Parent
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