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Geoscientist Online

Volcanoes: Encounters through the Ages

sxgjEven if you didn't think you had any interest in either volcanoes or historical geological documents and references, a visit to the Volcanoes exhibition which was held at the Weston Library in Oxford from February to May  2017 will surely have changed your mind. The exhibition, based on original documents, books and volcano-related ephemera dating from ancient to modern times from the extensive collections held by the Bodleian Library was nothing short of spectacular and totally absorbing (see the online review of the exhibit by Andrew Robinson).  Along with the chance to view rarely displayed original material, the exhibition was notable for the quality of the captioning, which explained just the right amount of the geological basics to put the historical material on display into context. With such a wealth of material on show, it took me several visits to take it all in.

Volcanoes: Encounters through the Ages is the book of the exhibition. It was clearly designed as a souvenir – albeit a fairly expensive one – to serve as a useful reminder of what the exhibit contained. However, unlike the exhibition itself, which I found totally absorbing, the book is a bit of curate's egg – that is, very good in parts. 

On the plus side it is beautifully produced and includes many wonderful reproductions of some of the documents and early photographs which featured in the exhibit.  These range from clear reproductions of manuscript diary pages and letters from people who viewed eruptions first hand, to early 20th century photographs and paintings of volcanoes and volcanic phenomena, and even old film posters designed to fire the public imagination.  The text descriptions that accompany the illustrations seem to expand on the original exhibition captions and are informative and fascinating. 

But the book also attempts to serve as an introduction to vulcanology for the general reader, and this, I feel, is its weak point.  Admittedly, it's not easy to explain the complexities of volcanoes to non-specialist readers.  However, in contrast to the generally stylish and informative writing about the historical context, the science writing often seems clumsy and occasionally unintentionally patronising – an impression not helped by the excessive use of explanatory phrases in parentheses.

My advice: skip the Introduction, skim through the other 'science textbook' sections and focus instead the historical sections and wonderful illustrations. You'll be in for a fascinating, enjoyable and informative read and a feast for the eyes.

Reviewed by Nina Morgan

[Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.  She writes the Distant Thunder column in Geoscientist. Her latest book, The Geology of Oxford Gravestones, is available via ]

VOLCANOES: ENCOUNTERS THROUGH THE AGES BY DAVID M PYLE.  Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2017, 223 pp. ISBN 978 1 85124 459 1 List price: £20/US$35.00