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Coal: A Human History
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Coal: A Human History

3.66 of 5 stars 3.66  ·  rating details  ·  958 ratings  ·  126 reviews
The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock has altered the course of history. Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist Manifesto, and...more
Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published (first published January 1st 2003)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,168)
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Dan Walker
This isn't a history of coal. OK, it is about coal, but a book written by a environmental lawyer isn't a history, it's a critique.

Which really is too bad, because the history of coal is about the triumph of human ingenuity and will over scarcity and poverty. Is it always a pretty picture? Not even close. And Ms. Freese does an excellent job portraying the miseries of children working in mines, the pollution of London, etc. etc.

But one gets the feeling that the miseries of coal are portrayed, not...more
Leo Walsh
Overall, Coal: A Human History is a fascinating and balanced look at the enormous and often unsung impact that this little black rock has had on our lives. Without it, there would have been no British empire. Nor would there have been an Industrial Revolution. Nor would the United States, whose huge coal deposits power our electric plants to this day, have ever become the economic juggernaut it became in the 20th century.

Freese, though, is not simply a coal cheerleader. She also gives us the bad...more
Kyle
I'm not sure whether or not I'm disappointed in this book. I've bee looking for a history of the coal industry for a while, and thought this might be the ticket. It does a great job looking at pre-industrial revolution uses of coal (the books best section), but falls down somewhat as it moves to 19th and 20th century America. There's some interesting discussion of the distinction between bituminous and anthracite coal and how their different placement shaped the coal industry, but I was left fee...more
Johnsergeant
Narrator: Shelly Frasier
Publisher: Tantor Media, 2003
Length: 7 hours and 18 min.

Publisher's Summary
The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock altered the course of history. Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist Manifesto, and helped the northern states win...more
Robert
A small book, written in an accessible, entertaining style, this is not only a comprehensive, scholarly history of coal, but also a serious assessment of the cost/benefits of its current use. Freeze has a deep, wide-ranging knowledge of her subject, seems to know everything there is to know about coal - from its early use by the Romans, both for fuel and ornament, through it indispensable modern role in the generation of electricity. And she presents the full story in a succinct, interesting man...more
Sean Betouliere
so damn good. full of compelling little historical details--the unimaginable filth and soot of industrial cities, where smoke blocked out the sky; the way that roads looked before pavement (gigantic muddy gullies, so deep that the top of a wagon would disappear within them); a royal attempt to ban coal back in 1306, which failed as the english demand for firewood outpaced the capacity of english forests; and also the crazy descriptions of what it was like to actually live and work in a mining to...more
Tom Darrow
This book is good at a lot of things, but not excellent at any one of them. For example, as a history, it is broad and sweeping, but its methodology is somewhat sketchy. Its citations are numerous, but a professional historian would likely want more and done in a more precise way.

As an environmental or science book, it again speaks in broad strokes, but the science of how coal is created and the dangers of burning it are limited to only a few sections.

As a travel book, she takes you to some exo...more
Heathy
Being from a state with a rich coal mining history, I was looking forward to reading this book. Sadly, "Coal: A Human History" disappointed me on multiple levels. First of all, the book reads like a science textbook. The sentence structure is very odd & left me having to reread lines several times. Also, the chapters are painfully long. I counted one chapter.... it was 30 pages in length.

Secondly, this book should be called "An Environmental History" because it's mainly focused on the enviro...more
Stephanie
Disappointed, wanted a more detailed history of coal. Got major, faulty diatribe on global warming. Hey, guess what? Snake eggs are not hard shelled, they are soft. She couldn't even get that right. what else didn't she get right?! There has got to be a better read about coal than this.
Steve
First half of Coal was fantastic. It is written with a good sense of humor and is incredibly interesting. Second half of Coal slows down a bit as it reveals the true drive of the book: pollutants released from burning coal and the destruction they've caused.

Overall a great and educational read which wanders from hilarious to tragic.
Ryan
Decent environmental history but not really what I was hoping for. It's not really much of a "human history," except that it considers the impact of coal on civilization writ large in the UK, US, and China. It certainly doesn't spend any time on miners, the humans most directly concerned with coal, outside brief mentions of harsh working conditions and labor organization. There is almost no discussion of the actual mechanical processes involved in producing or using coal, and where that discussi...more
Eve
This was a fascinating read and very well written in clear language that is engaging. A tremendous historical narrative about coal and a scary and urgent look at the current problems of climate change and what can be done to prevent further damage. I really think everyone today should read this book (although an update will be important to seek out because this book was published over 10 years ago).
Although environmental groups and science and environmental reporters have written on these theme...more
Amber
a VERY good read. I never thought I would be interested in the history of coal, but I couldn't put this book down.
Andrew
a book about coal...surely the most boring premise of any book?..actually no this is a interesting book which traces the rise and fall of a fuel source we may now take for granted and which also points to a way ahead.
the premise that the nation that begat the industrial revolution will work towards establishing a green revolution seems unlikely given the financial crash and the current coalition governments downgrading of the whole green agenda..austerity has hit green projects as hard as anythi...more
Richie Partington
23 April 2003 COAL: A HUMAN HISTORY by Barbara Freese, Perseus, February 2003, ISBN 0-7382-0400-5

It's a complicated yet amazing game: Life on Earth:

A bug sat in a silver flower
thinking silver thoughts.
A bigger bug out for a walk
climbed up that silver flower stalk
and snapped the small bug down his jaws
without a pause
without a care
for all the bug's small silver thoughts.
It isn't right
it isn't fair
that big bug ate that little bug
because that little bug was there.

He also ate his underwear.

--Karla Ku...more
Nick
Very interesting history of coal, primarily covering the British and American industrial revolutions. In spite of the subtitle, "A Human History" it reads as a basically factual overview, to the extent that the (relatively small) portions that get into discussing the human and environmental costs of coal use feel a bit forced and out of place. There is one chapter in particular that builds up to a discussion of the Kyoto Accords, which must have seemed relevant and destined to succeed when the b...more
Angela Forfia
Jun 12, 2009 Angela Forfia rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: cultural and social history geeks
Shelves: social-history
I'll start by admitting that I am a sucker for these cultural histories of stuff--cod, coffee, cotton, tobacco, the potato, you name it. So, a human history of coal was appealing before I read a single page. Barbara Freese, an environmentalist and former assistant attorney general of Minnesota, provides a sweeping survey of the history of coal from the Romans carving black stones into jewelry to the open coal fires of early modern cities to American King Coal monopolies of the early 20th century...more
Richard
Human beings need fuel, that means something has to burn, and pollution and side effects are a fact of life. The sun's going to be around a lot longer than humans (probably), and as skin cancer goes to show, is not without problems of its own. Wood is inefficient for industrial use, and anyway, nobody really wants to deforest the earth - well, I guess that's debatable. Oil is limited, more and more expensive, and drilling is more and more a disaster waiting to happen. Nuclear power? Oh yeah, we'...more
Wyatt
Mar 21, 2007 Wyatt rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history geeks
Freese offers an interesting narrative of coal that weaves through preindustrial England to present. I get the feeling reading that she researched everything from the perspective of coal and then unsurprisingly found that the world's history has been driven by coal (from the industrial revolution to the 2000 US election). That said she makes strong points about the importance of fuel and offers a very interesting minihistory.
Her writing style is easily readable and straightforward, but tries to...more
William
Definitely recommended to folks interested in energy, environment, and climate change. Freese does a great job recounting the history of coal use in the UK, the US, and China, and weaves the growth of industrial power in each with the social histories of life in mining regions and in areas where coal use was most prevalent before any controls were put on its use (black fogs lasting days, etc). She is an environmental lawyer, so her politics are known from the start, but she is fair in highlighti...more
Christina Dudley
I've been thinking about this book lately and considering rereading it, what with the consecutive days of terrible pollution in Beijing.

A fascinating, well-researched account of our troubled relationship with coal. After reading about the environmental consequences and the hardships visited on coal miners, I was sorry to learn WA state still relies on it for a significant portion of its energy. But it's so irresistibly cheap and there for the taking that it won't be going away anytime soon.
Delshawn
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. She wrote it all nice and neat. But, it still stinks (worse than my baby brother's diapers). It will put you to sleep (in a hour or so). You might want to read this book to your kids or grandchildren. It will put them to sleep faster than usual. Trust me, it will put them to sleep.
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Michelle
An enjoyable, informative read diminished in quality by the jumpy TV-like beginning, in which each section lasts only a few paragraphs before leaping to some new anecdote, and the schoolpaperish end, in which Freese sums up her views in a decidedly unsophisticated manner. I know lots about coal now, but I also had to restrain myself from violent reaction when I read passages like: "There are, in short, at least two very different paths civilization might have followed without coal. Humanity's te...more
Caroline
I really enjoyed all of the history in here, particularly the stuff about China. A summary of the book in nine words: coal plays a super-important part in human history. Got it.

The main problem with this book was the 30 page tangent roughly two-thirds of the way through about global warming and CO2 emissions from burning coal. Don't get me wrong - I'm all about the dangers of global warming and I appreciate the role that coal plays in it. I just wish I didn't have to have an environmental scienc...more
Kate
Surprisingly, the author of this book was an assistant attorney general for Minnesota who first became acutely aware of coal's role in global warming during a lawsuit brought by the state.

That lead her to learn more about coal - what it is, how it was formed, and its history.

Freese details how coal was critical to Britain and its role in the industrial revolution, enabling that tiny nation to defeat larger European powers with fewer coal resources, and colonize nations around the globe.

She expla...more
Kathleen Guinnane
An interesting look at something I'd never really had much interest in. I didn't realize how far back the use of coal went and to what extent we went to to get it. Also hadn't considered the impact it had on the industrialization of the world. It got a bit preachy when talking about modern coal usage, but still a good read.
Don
I did not know much about the history of coal, and Freese does a great job of explaining, describing, researching, sourcing ... But I will say that it's a fine little book that probably would have been even more compelling as a long magazine piece. Better yet, as a newish short-form e-book. It just got a little repetitive as it identified similarities in London, Pittsburgh, Beijing... etc. How many ways can.coal be described as wondrous, amazing, dangerous, dirty, and scary? It's all of those, a...more
Beth Barnett
This book looks into the rise of coal as a fuel and heating source, focusing on the British Isles and the United States. The story of coal mining and use, and its relationship to forest timber and to urbanization and industrialization is very interesting indeed. I was really captivated by Freese's research of historical descriptions of coal and coal pollution in British and US cities. The imagery is striking - and it is hard to imagine how anyone kept his/her clothing clean and managed not to ha...more
Kevin
Somewhat startling tale of the power and persuasion of coal and its grasp on the global economy. Coal's stranglehold on the health of our environment and the future of energy makes this an important read in my opinion. While we've seen many advancements in technology and conservation, it still appears that coal leaves a black mark on the current state of world energy consumption. Coal doesn't quite have the poetic edge of other commodity histories I've read but it does provide a stark picture of...more
Rick Jones
I liked this book, and came away with a pretty good feeling for the place this fuel has had in our history. It moved along at a pretty good pace, but at the end, the need to draw conclusions left me a little off. Freese could have presented the facts without wandering all over 'What If' land.

I also feel that there must be a wealth of information that wasn't presented. How about a short geologic history of coal? more pictures of the human aspects.

It's a decent, short little book on an interesti...more
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