Book Review: The Year Without Summer

The Year Without Summer:  1816 And The Volcano That Darkened The World And Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman

I must admit that I was not greatly impressed with this book.  That is not necessarily the fault of the author–he is after a professional man who desires to make money from his books and so has written a book of popular vulcanology that mimics the approach of Simon Winchester’s book on Krakatau in writing about another Indonesian volcano whose 19th century eruption had serious consequences.  To be sure, the author’s approach to the subject does have some serious flaws, which I will discuss at more length anon, but at the same time I was primed to be somewhat more critical of this book than I might have been had it not been such an obvious effort at writing a popular book on 19th century geology and its importance on history, and had I not been familiar with other and more accomplished efforts along the same lines.  If you have fondness for 19th century history and want to see what Frankenstein, the election of 1816, and Jane Austen have to do with an Indonesian volcano, this book draws such connections and is certainly not a waste of one’s time to read, even if it is not quite as good as the author seems to think it is.

This book of close to 300 pages is written in a largely chronological fashion about the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia and the effect it had on the European and American world.  The author begins with a brief discussion of the eruption itself and how it ranks with other eruptions that are known around the world within human history (1).  The author then looks at the portents of the effects of that volcano in the bright and vivid red sunsets that artists painted during that period (2).  After that comes a look at the low temperatures and their destructiveness that followed during the summer of 1816 (3).  The author makes plenty of snarky comments about the religious revivalism that was prompted by this particular disaster (4) as well as the political shenanigans going on in Europe in the aftermath of the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo (5).  The author discusses the lost summer of 1816 and the miserable harvests recorded all over the northern hemisphere (6), and praises governments for being activist and condemns them when they behaved in a more restrained fashion.  The author spends plenty of time on poverty and misery (7), while looking at the price of bread (8) and how it jumped in Europe and the United States, and also commented on the scarcity of the harvest (9) and the way it forced prices of meat to decline in the face of massive slaughter of animals that could not be fed over the winter.  Finally, the author discusses emigration (10) and relief (11) that marked the disaster’s long-term effects, followed by an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, and index.

This could have been a vastly better book, even as an imitative one.  A great deal of my offense with this book came about for several reasons.  For one, the author writes almost exclusively about the United States and Europe, blaming a lack of sources in Southern Asia and other places but showing what is generally an approach of writing with sources convenient to him, including the immoral personal lives of European writers like Shelley and Lord Byron and the somewhat familiar suffering and death of Jane Austen during this time as she collected the mixed reviews for Emma, wrote Persuasion, and started Sanditon.  More seriously, the author’s anti-religious bias, his political bias against restrained government and in favor of activist governments who engage in massive “generosity” to those in suffering through high taxation and intrusive regulations, and his chronological snobbery that seeks to mock the pseudoscientific arguments of climate change at the time without showing adequate self-awareness about the shrillness of contemporary bleating about supposed anthropogenic climate change are just impossible to bear.  There is value in this book, but the author does not make it easy to appreciate it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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