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Coal: A Human History

63 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0142000984
ISBN-10: 0142000981
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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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (January 27, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142000981
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142000984
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,780 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Richard Giordano on 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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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 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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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 2, 2005
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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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jeffery L. Guidry on 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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By SPM on October 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Barbara Freese's book has it all. It's about an important topic and it's very easy to read. The first few chapters deal with the discovery of coal as fuel, the pollution that resulted, the use of coal to run the British empire, and how coal was dug out of the ground. She describes the industrial revolution, noting that Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine, not James Watt. (Although Watt did make important improvements.)
Then she switches over to the US. She describes the coal-mining regions of the Appalachians and the two types of coal. (One burns easier but is dirtier than the other.)
Pollution is a key part of the story throughout these chapters. That sets up the final third of the book: coal mining gets automated, alternative fuels are introduced, and the environmental impact of pollution is described.
If this is your first book on coal, pollution, or fossil fuel, it won't be your last. Barbara Freese makes the topic very interesting. She whets your appetite for more.
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