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on November 13, 2002
Richard White's "Organic Machine" is a neat display of erudition and intelligence. Through the prism of the Columbia river, the book delves into the difficult relations between native Americans and white settlers. It shows the stronghold an aluminum multinational on local economy and politics. It informs us about the megalomania of giant state bureaucracies. It analyses the emergence and subsequent (enormously expensive) blunders in managing nuclear reactors, followed by the immense human and economic costs. It explores the society's attitudes to endangered species such as salmon, threatened with extinction because of technical progress. It shows us the power and resilience of a large river, unwilling to yield to the numerous dams built during the last 100 years.
The Organic Machine compares to John Barry's "Rising Tide", which treated the Mississippi's history as a classic epic in 400+ pages. "Rising Tide" is a compelling page-turner, not at all times sharp in its analysis, but centered around brilliantly narrated biographies and societal sketches. The Columbia's history has been just as rich, but Richard White took a totally different approach to explain the river. All elements which made Rising Tide such a fun read are there, and more. But Richard White chose to strip the story to the bone. What remains is 112 pages of crisp, flawless analysis. "Organic Machine" is very smart, but I thought the author was too dispassionate. Every page in this book screams for more illustrative anecdotes, it should have been at least three times its actual size.
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on October 23, 2000
Hands down the best history book written in English on a river. It rivals William Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis" as the best environmental history book I've read. Anyone who spends time near/on rivers (especially the Columbia) will appreciate this book. White tells a fascinating, compact story (~100 pages) that will force the consciencious reader to rethink his/her relationship with rivers as a source of energy. The book is also a lesson in form and style.
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on October 30, 2007
The Organic Machine is an ideal example of what great scholarship should produce. It's a short, beautifully written, passionate history of what we human beings have made of the Columbia River in the time since white people came to the Northwest. It is driven by an environmentalism founded on the understanding that man is not separate from nature and never can be. The protagonist of this book is the salmon -- a creature to whom we have done no favors by transforming the Columbia -- yet man is not the villain of the piece. This book is written, as White says, "to understand rather than denounce." The profound depth of White's scholarship is made clear in the bibliographic essay that follows the text; the text itself makes use of massive learning in a graceful and accessible style. Anyone who cares about our relationship with the natural world, and who wants to think about it with some subtlety and historical grounding, should read this book. They don't come any better.
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on July 11, 2012
Whether or not you are studying Environmental History, I recommend reading this book; it is fascinating and helps us understand the history of Salmon in the Pacific Northwest. This is one of the best books in the area of environmental history that I have ever read, and that says a lot because I have a Bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies.
-Adrenaline
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon June 23, 2012
An interesting essay on the impact of our industrial civilization in the American west. White uses the history of the Columbia River basin as a paradigmatic example of large scale engineering of the natural world. White opens by pointing out that human interactions with the Columbia basin are ancient; Native Americans exploited the resources of the Columbia for millenia. The lower Columbia valley was relativel densely populated due in large part to he enormous bounty of Salmonid migrations up the Columbia. While White is no starry eyed romantic, the impression he leaves is that this traditional pre-industrial economy existed in a kind of equilibrium with the Columbia. The coming of Europeans and European descended Americans brought about great social and biologic changes. The enormous disease related mortality associated with European contact and the commodification of food supplies devastated Native American populations and societies. Into this partial vacuum came Americans who were increasingly involved in a global and commodity oriented economy.

Industrial technology made possible the reorganization of the Columbia basin. White concisely shows the convergence of interests that drove this impressively large effort. Corporate interests, local boosterism, Progressive ideology-politics, and Depression era job creation all drove the amazing efforts of the Bonneville Power Administration and other agencies that remade the Columbia basin. This is very much the story of unintended consequences. Many advocates of these projects saw them as vehicles for political reform and social transformation - goals that were never really met. White connects these efforts to interesting and distinctly American figures such as Emerson and the 20th century social theorist Lewis Mumford.

The ultimate result is what White terms The Organic Machine; the transformation of the Columbia Basin into a living analogue of a piece of machinery. This is not a moralistic book. White is primarily concerned with describing this phenomenon and understanding its genesis. While he primarily describes many of the unsatisfactory aspects of the outcome, he is also quite clear on some of the considerable benefits of this remarkable project. This is very much the story of human activity as a virtually geologic force; producing a powerfully concrete and very different analogue of the natural world.

There is an unsatisfactory aspect to this book. It is really a fairly long essay and falls somewhat between 2 stools. Intended partially as a somewhat philosophical essay, its a bit too long and White could have made the essential points in a shorter text. At the same time,m White's historical perspective is quite interesting but it doesn't provide the breadth of historical detail you'd expect from a more strictly historical work.
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on May 20, 2016
Excellent book. Richard White made a masterpiece here. His writing and framing of the subject is so beautifully done. I think the book gets better as you get more into it.....especially liked the second half. I am huge Richard White fan now.
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on April 22, 2014
Amazing explanation and description of how the Columbia river has changed over time. From back to when Indians inhabited the river, up until the industrialization of the river this book provides a great timeline of the rivers changes, and how the river is a machine in itself
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on February 26, 2016
I really can't add much to the other very positive reviews of the book. The Columbia River area -- especially the Gorge -- is one of my favorite places on the planet, and I really appreciate how Richard White gives a brief account of the development of the river without hyperbole and hysterics. He even touches on the that in passing. As I read, it was so easy just to relive in my mind the trips I've made to and through the area. For anyone interested in the Pacific Northwest, the history of our interactions with the rest of nature, and/or the development of the West, this is a great book -- attention-keeping, fast-moving, and lots of interesting details without bogging down anywhere.
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on January 20, 2014
This book is a good read.Gives you a lot information that is relevant today. I thought the book was about salmon until i finished it. It is really about damns that produce electricity It gives a good insight into the part we play in our environment.
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on August 3, 2014
Despite its small size, there is an incredible amount of history in these short 100 some pages. An incredible work of literary genius.
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