Praise for Coal: A Human History

(A New York Times Notable Book)


“Engrossing and sometimes stunning . . .  ‘The industrial age,’ Freese writes, ‘emerged literally in a haze of coal smoke, and in that smoke we can read much of the history of the modern world.’ Overstatement?  It’s impossible to think so after reading this strongly argued and thoroughly researched book. . . . Coal, while it fairly acknowledges what the substance has done for people, devotes its more swashbuckling passages to describing what it has done to them . . . [Freese] wants to prompt us to think broadly – and specifically – about our relationship to the physical material of the world, the startling history that has brought us to this point and the chain of human and economic events that is set in motion when we flip on a light switch.  On these questions, Coal, to borrow a phrase, is king.”

--The New York Times Book Review


“In Coal, Barbara Freese takes us on an enthralling journey, across time and across continents, using the fascination with coal and the crucial need for it as a way of approaching some of the most fundamental questions of human existence.  Her style is engaging, her research impressive, her message an important one.”

--Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States


“Given the particular chemistry of global warming, it’s possible that the decisions we make about coal in the next two decades may prove to be more important than any decisions we’ve ever made as a species.  This book – full of lore, and also of insight – will give you all the background you need to understand why this subject is so vital.”

--Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature


“Barbara Freese has a nose for the links between things, technology, and culture.  This is a book I’d like to put on my class reading list.  I can think of no substance that has played so important a role in shaping industrial technology and the relative fortunes of competing economies.”

--David Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations


“Freese has a deft style and a knack for explanatory metaphors.  And she enlivens her meticulously researched history with anecdotes and surprising facts. . . . Above all, Freese is a strong storyteller who captivates with detail. . . . Freese’s book is neither an environmentalist screed nor an industry apologia.” 

--The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis/St. Paul)


“Coal is dirty, cheap and totally lacking in glamour.  It’s also hugely important to human history and to the environment.  In a thoroughly absorbing history, Barbara Freese . . . pushes the sooty rock from the shadows into the limelight and gives it a mixed review.  While much that is wonderful about modern civilization could not have happened without coal, there is a dark side . . . . [Freese] warns that our excuses for continuing to burn coal at present levels will ring hollow to future generations left to deal with the catastrophic consequences of our actions.” 

--The Boston Herald


“Convincing and eloquent . . . Freese paints a fascinatingly wide swath.”

--The Philadelphia Inquirer


“Unblinking, lyrical study of a mundane mineral … [Coal, Barbara Freese’s] insightful and readable study, strikes the perfect balance of wonder and sadness, a history that reads like a painful and romantic lament, almost a fado dedicated to a mineral rather than a lover.  Freese contemplates the fabulous effects of coal on the development of technology, wealth and modern culture, but also the enormous costs. . . . Freese carefully and thoughtfully assesses the beauty, terror and power of this mundane substance in human history.  She’s written a magnificent and plaintive ballad to the black stone that radically altered the path our lives have taken.”  

--The Providence Journal


“With her abundance of illuminating, often startling insights, Barbara Freese shows us how profoundly we are defined by our energy choices.  This epic story illustrates the ways coal has redefined the role of workers, changed family structures, altered concepts of public health and private wealth, and crystallized a profound and enduring debate over national values.  Coal has generated social movements even as it consolidated power structures, and today it threatens to destroy the very civilization it helped create.  An engaging book with surprises on virtually every page.”

--Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On


“Once Barbara Freese has the reader eating out of her hand with telling anecdotes -- have you ever considered travelling by rail with a bucket of sand in your lap in case your fellow travelers catch fire? – she turns to sterner stuff.  You are by then an addict, and you finish the book knowing a great deal more about global warming, Kyoto, and such then you ever thought you would. . . . A marvelous book.

--Liza Picard, author of Victorian London


“Elegant and engaging. . . No subject is more important for understanding the recent past or preparing for the future.”

--Sunday Times (London)


“An engaging and interesting book, tightly documented and consistently readable.  Freese makes a passionate plea for a more considered way of treating the earth, its resources and its inhabitants.”

--Daily Telegraph (U.K.)


“In the same vein as Mark Kurlansky’s single-topic histories Salt and Cod, Freese examines the long, who-knew-it-could-be-so-fascinating history of coal, and how its use transformed Great Britain, the United States and China throughout the centuries. . . . A rich social, environmental and political history that ends on a note of warning about the continued use of coal despite detrimental effects on the environment.” 

--The Oregonian (Portland)


“Freese’s passion for coal is born out of her work . . . Freese’s book is as much about the growing scientific evidence of the damage coal causes to the environment as it is about the social history of the Industrial Revolution.”

--Financial Times (U.K.)


“Ms. Freese writes her story well . . . This, then, is a history of coal, an unglamorous substance that Ms. Freese makes glow like its namesake’s embers.” 

--Richmond Times-Dispatch


“[A] masterful piece of research and writing by . . .  a talented author.”

--Roanoke Times


“This is an unpretentious title for an absorbing book that never loses its grip.  Barbara Freese is a splendid writer and takes the coal of the whole world into her compass. . . . In Coal Freese also has much to say about its future as a source of power and her conjectures on what world history might have been without it are fascinating.”

--New Scientist

“Fascinating. . . . It lingers hauntingly in the mind.”

--New Statesman


“As this human history of coal makes clear, there are no easy answers.  But books as lucid as Freese’s make a welcome contribution to the search for a sustainable energy economy.”

--Natural History


“Eloquent . . . unsparing . . . The relation between carbon and climate change has seldom been so clearly and readably explained.”

--Scotsman (U.K.)


 “The history of coal, that unglamorous substance that environmental attorney Freese manages to buff until it shines like its distant cousin the diamond. . . . Freese’s writing is a bit like coal – smooth and glinting, burning with a steady warmth . . . [A]n intriguing, cautionary tale.”

--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


“[A]n exquisite chronicle of the rise and fall of this bituminous black mineral . . . . 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.”

--Publishers Weekly (starred review)


“Freese . . . documents in clear, eloquent writing the consequences of coal use on industrial growth and the environment.  Her balancing of ecological concerns with realistic analysis of resource use is impressive. . . . Highly recommended for all libraries.”

--Library Journal (starred review)