• 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.


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)


See More Like This

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Uses Coal to push her Political Agenda

This is really a book about global warming. The author is a lawyer for a state environmental regulatory body and gets interested in coal because of a case she worked on. She writes very interesting historical summaries of coal use in England, the US, and China. I agree with another reviewer that she lacks expertise on this topic and that her sources are vague and insubstantial.

She also lacks judgement and logic. She early on shows her hand with the statement that climate change is primarily caused by fossil fuels we burn". This is simply not true. The global climate is influenced in part by this, but her simplistic idea that we can stop global warming by dropping fossil fuels is unscientific. The planet has been a lot warmer in the past; solar activity over which we have no control effects climate etc.

She has a childike faith in the Kyoto Protocol, which (she does not mention) Pres. Clinton never even submitted to the Senate, even though his VP negotiated it. Many people object to Kyoto because it exempts China, India, and other nations, which might then attract jobs away from the regulated countries. Her answer is that the treaty does not say these jobs will leave the US. Such logic is staggering.

She also lacks judgment. She complains that the coal industry--unlike high tech--is controlled by large conglomerates, and also that US coal use is increasing. Yet she never stops to ask why these this is the case. Is the answer because of the very kind of environmental regulation she is such an advocate of?

She also seems to have a strange tolerance for Chinese pollution, saying that they are entitled to pollute their way to wealth, just as we did (it's only fair); meanwhile she bemoans global warming. She excitedly cites stats showing their pollution is now 3x over the limit, down from 4x.

In sum, the historical parts are interesting; the narration great; the author's apocalyptic agenda tedious.

Read full review

- Kismet

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.
Read full review

- miyaker

Book Details

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