Tag Archive: Vesuvius


Review by C.J. Bunce

Whenever you read a Colin Solter book, you know what you’re going to get.  Salter, author of 100 Speeches that Changed the World and the co-author of 100 Books that Changed the World, is bringing his next thought-provoking ideas to your bookstore next month, 100 Letters that Changed the World.  As with his prior entries in the series, Solter doesn’t really assemble the 100 best, 100 favorite, or even 100 most important items in each category, but he brings to light primary references from history.  In doing this he reminds readers as much as things change, they also manage to stay the same.  Having read his earlier books, I find I’m as intrigued to learn what he has selected from the obscure as much as more expected finds.

In truth, not all of these letters changed the world, if anyone, as might be the case with a few suicide notes from popular culture across the decades.  It also gives a bit more weight to letters that exist in their original form today, and letters that might fetch big dollars on the collector’s market.  The most intriguing of the letters is a note from Abigail Adams to husband John Adams from 1776.  Her letter decidedly did not change the world, because had Adams paid heed to her plea, women would have been included along with “all men” in the Declaration of Independence.  But it is a fascinating secret from history nonetheless.  Also fascinating is the final, jovial letter from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his wife Constanze, including references to his peer Antonio Salieri.

More obvious, important entries in 100 Letters that Changed the World include the telegram informing FDR about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s open letter from a Birmingham jail, Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison, and words of King Henry VIII’s affections to Anne Boleyn, which indeed would forever alter the course of history in Europe, Christopher Columbus’s first report back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1493, as well as Galileo mentioning his telescope whereby he first saw the moons of Jupiter and noted its military advantage for Italian naval efforts in 1610.  And from the historic, but perhaps not so critical to human progress is the last telegram message from the RMS Titanic, a telegram from the Wright Brothers to their father of their successful first airplane flight, and Pliny the Younger’s letter to Tacitus describing the horrific deaths from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79.

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Pompeii image

Years ago I had the great fortune of living in Vancouver, Washington, across the beautiful Columbia River from Portland, and every day I watched the skyline of Mt St. Helens as I drove to work downtown.  Fifty years before that, my dad peered up at St. Helens as he walked to school in that same Pacific Northwest town.  The big difference of what he saw–compared to what I saw–was the top of the mountain was gone, destroyed more than 15 years before I got there when the volcano reared its force across southwest Washington, devastating the forests and towns and lives of several people nearby, killing nearly 60 people, nearly 7,000 deer, elk and bears, and 12 million fish.

The eruption was still a topic of conversation years after the blast.  Vancouver had been covered in ash.  People shoveled ash like it was snow, and it even looked like dirty snow.  Vancouver and towns closer to the blast zone’s 230 square mile destruction area were just plain lucky the 24 megaton blast of energy didn’t stretch any further.  Even 20 years after the blast, remnants remained.  We were having our home re-roofed and a worker fell through into our family room pulling with him pounds and plumes of ash that had sat quietly in the shingles and attic all those years.

Mt St Helens 1980

As a kid watching the blast on TV, I learned a new word: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a disease from inhaling the ash and in its plural form the biggest word in Webster’s Dictionary.  The blast also brought memories from my dad about his service days around the city Pompeii, including reviewing his photos of the aftermath of Mt. Vesuvius and solidified stone tombs still documenting the last acts of the townspeople.   With 1,934 years removed from the tragic event, it’s easy to marvel at how interesting these people looked.  Yet I had a newly found sense of horror last week, reading the New York Times front page news of Syria. Horrific photos showed the gassed suburb of Damascus, with families also found dead in various states of simply living their lives, left in this strange, unreal-yet-too-real and disturbing way.  These people were of course murdered, in contrast to the Vesuvius natural disaster, but both events are similarly shocking.

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