Rain: A Natural and Cultural History

Cynthia Barnett

Crown, 2015

Agent: Elise Capron

It is the subject of countless poems and paintings; the top of the weather report; the source of all the world's water. Yet this is the first book to tell the story of rain.

Cynthia Barnett's Rain begins four billion years ago with the torrents that filled the oceans, and builds to the storms of climate change. It weaves together science--the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains--with the human story of our ambition to control rain, from ancient rain dances to the 2,203 miles of levees that attempt to straitjacket the Mississippi River. It offers a glimpse of our "founding forecaster," Thomas Jefferson, who measured every drizzle long before modern meteorology. Two centuries later, rainy skies would help inspire Morrissey's mopes and Kurt Cobain's grunge. Rain is also a travelogue, taking readers to Scotland to tell the surprising story of the mackintosh raincoat, and to India, where villagers extract the scent of rain from the monsoon-drenched earth and turn it into perfume.

Now, after thousands of years spent praying for rain or worshiping it; burning witches at the stake to stop rain or sacrificing small children to bring it; mocking rain with irrigated agriculture and cities built in floodplains; even trying to blast rain out of the sky with mortars meant for war, humanity has finally managed to change the rain. Only not in ways we intended. As climate change upends rainfall patterns and unleashes increasingly severe storms and drought, Barnett shows rain to be a unifying force in a fractured world. Too much and not nearly enough, rain is a conversation we share, and this is a book for everyone who has ever experienced it.


Shortlisted for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing

Longlisted for the National Book Award

An NPR Science Friday Best Book of 2015

A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015

A Tampa Bay Times Favorite Book of 2015

A Miami Herald Favorite Book of 2015

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2015

A Goodreads Best Books of the Month for April 2015


“Barnett, like all of us who write about science for nonspecialists, balances the value of technical details against the risk of alienating readers, landing on the side of generalization. Toward the end of her book, Barnett draws again from Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles.” Bradbury wrote that his imagined Martians “blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.” In essence, this blending is exactly what Barnett does for rain, merging religion and art and science to capture a gestalt, one best considered and appreciated somewhere less than dry, perhaps during a wet morning on a soaked trail, where printed pages can be baptized by the very substance that is their subject.”
The New York Times

"A seamless blending of personal narrative with scientific and cultural explanations...Fans of Mary Roach will recognize a similar ease of style and interjection of wit…Accessible to every reader, from the environmental scientist to the parent choosing whether their child needs to wear a raincoat that day."
Library Journal (starred)

"A spectacularly vivid, all-encompassing history of rain... Like John McPhee, Jared Diamond, and Elizabeth Kolbert, Barnett illuminates a crucial subject with knowledge, energy, conviction, and a passion for mind-expanding facts and true stories."
Booklist (starred)

“In this ‘multifaceted examination of the science, the art, the technologoy, and even the smell of rain throughout history,’ Barnett delivers a variety of fascinating stories about this indispensable part of the natural world…. [Rain]highlights the severity of some of our environmental problems with knowledge, humor, urgency and hope."
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Barnett beautifully evokes universal themes of connecting cycles of water, air, wind, and earth to humankind across time and culture, leaving readers contemplating their deeper ties with the natural world."
Publishers Weekly

"Mesmerizing and powerful history. Barnett is a passionate, intrepid journalist whose research has taken her everywhere from a Mackintosh factory in Glasgow to a rickety suspension bridge, made of steel-wire rope, 30 feet above India's Simtung River during monsoon season. Her cultural references are equally far-reaching... Abundant details, spiced with irreverence and humor, are what make this book so delicious. What elevates it and makes it important is Barnett's exploration of humanity's attempts throughout history to prevail over the elements... Reading this book, we are witness to the profoundly flawed, hubristic core of human nature itself."

"Rain is a lovely, lyrical, deeply informative book. It will change the way you look at gray skies, and sunny ones, too."
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction

“In Rain, Cynthia Barnett has given us a landmark work of environmental history. She brilliantly illuminates the essential weather conditions that allow our blue-marble earth to exist. From now on I'll think about raindrops differently. Rain is a triumph.”
Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior; professor of history, Rice University

"Rain—the thing the weatherman frowns about—is one of the planet's great pulses, as this marvelous book makes clear. Read it now, recalling the rainstorms we grew up with, and anticipating the harsh new rainfall that's coming our way on a warming globe."
Bill McKibben, author of Earth

"Brilliant, insightful, and beautifully written. Raindrops are prisms through which we see the surprising and profound connections among water, human history, and our uncertain future."
David George Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen; professor of biology, University of the South

"Some of the most lyrical and surprising nature writing that I have ever read. This book is filled with wonder, as mysterious as the shape of a falling raindrop, which is not the drop we imagine, but a concave little parachute drifting to the earth below. After reading this, you will never look up the same way again."
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods

"Rain is one of the most elegant and absorbing books ever written about the natural world. Writing with grace and imagination, Cynthia Barnett takes you on a journey into the heart of the most elemental force in our lives. An important, revelatory, and thoroughly wondrous book."
William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

"Captivating and compelling, a delightful celebration of precipitation that is brimming with insight. Whether you’re desperate for more of it or you just wish it would stop, you’ll never think of rain in the same way again."
Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloud Collector’s Handbook

"Cynthia Barnett looks at the human relationship to rain—from Noah, to Thomas Jefferson, to our own conflicted attitudes. The result is a book of unexpected connections and wonderful surprises. It will give you more respect for every rainstorm you experience, and more joy in the raindrops."
Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

"Barnett’s beautifully written book envelops the reader in warm shower of intriguing history and fascinating science. Anyone who looks longingly at rain clouds, rejoices in a spring downpour, or frets about drought, will love Rain."
Daniel Chamowitz, author of What a Plant Knows; Director, Manna Center for Plant Biosciences, Tel Aviv University

"Like the weather, there's no predicting the delightful and sometimes disturbing surprises waiting on every page of Rain. Whether she's writing about Mesopotamia or the Met Office, Cynthia Barnett illuminates the hidden connections that tie our fate to a precious resource we neglect at our peril."
Dan Fagin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation

"Rain is one of those uncommonly wonderful books that are both highly significant and deeply pleasurable to read. As we face the coming time of storms, of flood and drought, nothing will be more important than rain. So all gratitude to Cynthia Barnett for writing a book that is clear, surprising, and filled with fascination."
Kathleen Dean Moore, co-editor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril

"If you care about this planet, you're lucky that Cynthia Barnett writes so elegantly and intelligently about the stuff that falls on it. It's kind of ironic--like rain on your wedding day?--that the folly of mankind's relentless efforts to control the earth's water has inspired Barnett's best work yet."
Michael Grunwald, author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise