Book Review: Rain, Cynthia Barnett

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When I was a child, my father always told me that I would begin enjoying nonfiction books when I grew up. I never imagined I would begin to prefer nonfiction over fiction, but today, I am writing a review about a book on the natural and cultural history of rain, so I guess I am officially grown up. Cynthia Barnett’s Rain mainly caught my eye because Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a nice sentence about the book that was printed on the front cover: “A lovely, lyrical, deeply informative book.” I have a lot of respect for Kolbert, so while I won’t call her a liar, after I finished the book, I noticed she didn’t actually tell me the book was worth reading.

Rain: a Natural and Cultural History is an ambitious book that tries to cover a little bit of everything, such as explaining the rain cycle, the invention of waterproof raincoats, and whether rainy cities like Seattle spark creative genius. The book is half thought provoking and half fun trivia. It kept my interest, and I learned a slew of new facts that I used to impress my sister, the resident water-expert, such as the fact that Mobile, Alabama is the rainiest metro area in the country. However, the book was all over the place, jumping around in time, location, and themes. The book is broken into five seemingly arbitrary sections (for example Elemental Rain, Mercurial Rain, and American Rain.) Barnett tries to thread it all together by bringing up the same scientists every few pages throughout the book, but instead of creating a cohesive thesis, it makes the book seem disorganized and all over the place. While Barnett’s passion for her subject is palpable, I wish she would have spent more time editing and organizing the book. Some of the writing is confusing and unclear. Halfway through the book, Barnett starts writing in the first person to tell us about her travels chasing rain in Meghalaya, which both threw me off and annoyed me – where were you earlier?

I also have a bone to pick with nonfiction literature in general these days. Maybe it’s the law school rubbing off on me, but where are your footnotes and sources? I am a big fact checker and was disappointed at the glibness with which Barnett treats sources and studies. In the Introduction, for example, she tells us that rain had a huge impact on the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000. According to Barnett, if it hadn’t rained, Gore would have won the election, but I didn’t see a study cited for this in the endnotes, and she didn’t expand further on this bold statement. I expected further elaboration on either rain’s impact on the election or on people’s decision making behaviors later in the book, but alas, much like Barnett’s search for rain in Meghalaya, the explanations never came.

Cynthia Barnett seems like someone I would love to have on my trivia team or to grab a cup of coffee with one day, but I think I’ll have to respectfully decline reading her next book. While I did learn a few new things and discovered an interest in understanding how urban planning can disrupt the rain cycle, I think there must be better book out there on these subjects. I don’t regret reading this book, but I don’t think I’d really suggest it to anyone else.

***

I’d only recommend this book to people who spend hours perusing Wikipedia for fun or who are looking to brush up on their rain trivia for a geography bee.

Additional Reading:

  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
  • If you’re interested in urban planning and rain, I’d recommend starting with Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on The Siege of Miami.
  • In case you’re curious about rain’s impact on the 2000 election, the National Constitution Center writes about it.
  • In case you want to read this book and argue with me about whether it is actually the best science writing ever, you can find Rain on Amazon. Or if you ask me nicely, I may mail you my copy.
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