Coal

  • by Barbara Freese
  • Narrated by Shelly Frasier
  • 7 hrs and 18 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

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 the American Civil War. Yet the mundane mineral that built our global economy, and even today powers our electrical plants, has also caused death, disease, and environmental destruction. As early as 1306, King Edward I tried to ban coal (unsuccessfully) because its smoke became so obnoxious. Its recent identification as a primary cause of global warming has made it a cause celebre of a new kind.
In this remarkable book, Barbara Freese takes us on a rich historical journey that begins three hundred million years ago and spans the globe. From the "Great Stinking Fogs" of London to the rat-infested coal mines of Pennsylvania, from the impoverished slums of Manchester to the toxic city streets of Beijing, Coal is a captivating narrative about an ordinary substance that has done extraordinary things – a simple black rock that could well determine our fate as a species.

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What the Critics Say

"Engrossing and sometimes stunning...[a] strongly argued and thoroughly researched book... Coal, to borrow a phrase, is king." (New York Times Book Review)
"Freese's writing is a bit like coal: smooth and glinting, burning with a steady warmth...An intriguing, cautionary tale." (Kirkus Reviews)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

About 1/2 good, 1/2 not so good

There are some great parts, such as the history of coal in the UK, US, and China and its role in social history. However, I found it lacking in other areas of coal history I've read about in other books. Notably, Daniel Yergin's _The Prize_ discusses how WW1 was shaped by oil and coal use and how Nazi Germany used coal-to-liquids fuels produced in slave factories attached to concentration camps to compensate for oil shortages. These facts and South Africa's history of subsidizing coal fuels seem critical to understanding modern coal economics and lobbying. However, the book instead presents a litany of air pollution and climate problems with coal, which applies to pretty much all fossil fuels -- I've heard similar material before in now-countless newspapers and books. As a result, this large part of the book seems to me more like polemic than erudition. Overall, I'd say I learned something new from about 45-50% of the book, with not much new in the rest of it. Really, the book's more a persuasion piece, and I was looking for a lot more new information when I invested the listening time.
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- Chad

Good, but more than a hint of bias

A fascinating subject, and while not as captivating as "Salt" or "Cod" by Mark Kurlansky, the author still holds your interest while describing the history of coal.
Unfortunately, her bias is clear - coal is and was a force of evil. The book dwells on the negatives from coal. While clearly the fuel has major environmental implications in the present world, even the historical discussion focuses almost solely on pollution, mining danger, etc. References to the historical positives are turned negative (i.e., coal permitted the rise of cities, but the book focuses on slums. Coal permitted improved production, the book talks about it's use in making weapons of war...)
When the author turns to modern times, that bias makes it a little hard to fully trust her claims. Discouraging, because there's a lot of intriguing information here on global warming and particulates.

It's still worth a listen, but I'd have preferred the work of a balanced scientist instead of a lawyer that reached a conclusion before starting her research.

The narration is excellent - clear and well paced.
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- miyaker

Book Details

  • Release Date: 08-01-2003
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio