Rain book cover

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History

Cynthia Barnett


We are Here:  Done!

Spoilers?     No


I began reading this book last summer, tackling it first in chapters, then in 2-3 page snippets. (What can I say, fiction is hard to resist.) As I waited out the epic California drought, this book became a type of wistful talisman on which to hang my ill-defined superstitions. Throughout the long months, I would credit it with bringing the lightest smattering of precipitation to the dusty San Gabriel Valley. And last week, just a month after I’d finally finished reading it, the deluge appeared.

Much to my delight, this book was long-listed for the National Book Award.

Journalist Cynthia Barnett writes in the style of Bill Bryson–or any entertaining journalist who ventures into the world of non-fiction. As such, the book meanders a bit (think At Home rather than the more thematically coherent A Walk in the Woods) with some diversions more interesting than others. We visit a cocktail party of historical players, delving into the theories of crackpots and presidents alike, chasing tangents and weaving them into a narrative that cycles back repeatedly to Barnett’s two-pronged thesis:

“…there’s nothing destructive about the rain itself,” Barnett writes, “only we have made it so” (274).

Rain, or lack thereof, is the lynch-pin of climate change, with human ecological intervention leading both to drought and flooding.

She posits that rainfall is critical to our understanding of the global climate and how it might evolve. Not shy about detailing the catastrophic environmental and social consequences, Barnett relies on environmental determinism a bit too much for my taste. But overall, this is a well-researched and beautifully written book that brings multiple threads–historical and contemporary–together in order to tell a story about our world and the water that makes it the place we call home.


Frasier reference! (See page 21, where he accompanying the obligatory mention of Seattle and a less-expected name-check of Sequim and the Hoh Rain Forest.)

The chapter about rain’s influence on artists was soothing and went in unexpected directions. What could have been rote was instead inspired.

I adore how unapologetically angry Barnett is with Florida engineers for destroying the Everglades, as well as her description of rain’s essence, which depends on “the subjective memory of the nose behind the sniff” (213).

Fun, if mind-blowing, fact: “Utah, California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas all engineer clouds” (183).

Why is this book better than people?

Know how cliche it is to curl up with a good book on a rainy day? Well, imagine if you could curl up with a good book about rain on a rainy day? META-FABULOUS!!!

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