The latest in the Earth series, which traces the historical and cultural significance of various natural phenomena, Flood provides insights into some of the world’s biggest, most deadly floods, their causes and representations in art and literature.
Written by a leading ‘disaster historian’ and journalist, the book’s narrative is authoritative, succinct and illuminating, neatly weaving the prominent role of floods in religion and
myth, with hard evidence of specific deluges that may have inspired them. The cleansing of humanity and the chance of a fresh start is a recurrent theme in all of the major religions, it seems, and this, combined with the sheer drama of floods, has provided abundant stimulus to art and literature – from Michelangelo’s The Deluge in the Sistine Chapel to Emile Zola’s The Flood. These sections of the book are enhanced by a generous selection of illustrations.
Accounts of some of the biggest and best-known floods and their aftermaths make sobering reading. The 1938 Yellow River flood, which resulted in a death toll of 800,000, mostly civilians, was deliberately created in an attempt to halt the rapid advance of invading Japanese forces. The descriptions of our efforts to tame the waterways are also enlightening. China’s Zhou emperors tried the sacrificial method of flood prevention, hurling young girls into troublesome rivers in a bid to calm them.
The book’s intermingling of natural physical processes and our social and cultural responses to them is pure geography, bringing an arguably essential historical perspective at a time when our capacity to hold back the floods is under constant scrutiny in a world beset by climate change.
FLOOD: Nature and Culture by John Withington, Reaktion Books, pb, £14.95