What We Are Reading Today: Volcanoes in Human History

Updated 18 February 2019
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What We Are Reading Today: Volcanoes in Human History

Authors: Jelle Zeilinga de Boer & Donald Theodore Sanders

When the volcano Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, as many as 100,000 people perished as a result of the blast and an ensuing famine caused by the destruction of rice fields on Sumbawa and neighboring islands. Gases and dust particles ejected into the atmosphere changed weather patterns around the world, resulting in the infamous “year without a summer” in North America, food riots in Europe, and a widespread cholera epidemic. And the gloomy weather inspired Mary Shelley to write the gothic novel Frankenstein.
This book tells the story of nine such epic volcanic events, explaining the related geology for the general reader and exploring the myriad ways in which the earth’s volcanism has affected human history.
Zeilinga de Boer and Sanders describe in depth how volcanic activity has had long-lasting effects on societies, cultures, and the environment. The authors draw on ancient as well as modern accounts — from folklore to poetry and from philosophy to literature. Beginning with the Bronze Age eruption, the book tells the human and geological stories of eruptions of such volcanoes as Vesuvius, Krakatau, Mount Pelée, and Tristan da Cunha.
Along the way, it shows how volcanism shaped religion in Hawaii, permeated Icelandic mythology and literature, caused widespread population migrations, and spurred scientific discovery.
From the prodigious eruption of Thera more than 3,600 years ago to the relative burp of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the results of volcanism attest to the enduring connections between geology and human destiny.


What We Are Reading Today: Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner

Updated 20 March 2019
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What We Are Reading Today: Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner

  • Marion Turner reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the center of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination, according to a review on the Princeton University Press website. 

Uncovering important new information about Chaucer’s travels, private life, and the early circulation of his writings, this innovative biography documents a series of vivid episodes, moving from the commercial wharves of London to the frescoed chapels of Florence and the kingdom of Navarre, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived side by side. The narrative recounts Chaucer’s experiences as a prisoner of war in France, as a father visiting his daughter’s nunnery, as a member of a chaotic Parliament, and as a diplomat in Milan, where he encountered the writings of Dante and Boccaccio. The book also offers a comprehensive exploration of Chaucer’s writings.