Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Vesuvius: A Biography, by Alwyn Scarth

This history of Mount Vesuvius and its impact onthe lives of the people who lived nearby and the Italian peninsula itself is the slave of its own subject. Meticulous in a prosaic way, the book chronicles every eruption, every flow of lava and burst of steam and ash, that is recorded in written history, oral accounts, legend, and in the geological record. There is an underlying premise here—that long-lived natural phenomenon such as active volcanoes have a deep and lasting effect on human culture and history. A good thesis. My objection to this book is that it rarely raises its head above the ground level. We learn a great deal about the volcano, how it formed, what happened in various eruptions, how many people were affected, who wrote about it, its impact on settlements and farming communities, and so on. Mount Vesuvius is probably the best documented geological activity in human history. The interest of the account varies directly in relation to the detail available on particular eruptions—such as the famous eruption in AD 72 that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, and chronicles by such writers as Pliny the Elder (who died in the eruption), Pliny the Younger, and many others—and to historical figures that emerge in the course of the story. The 18th century British diplomat Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), whose writings about Vesuvius became one of the most detailed accounts of volcanoes ever produced, is an example—he was my favorite character. And there are moments, when eruptions threaten villages and force thousands of people to flee in panic, that the story comes alive. But for the most part charts, scrupulous lists and deadly prose hold sway.  Princeton University Press, 2009.

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