Five Best Books on Oil

The Wall Street Journal
August 21, 2010
(The Wall Street Journal publishes a column every week in which an author lists the five best books on a particular subject. This is my list on oil.)

1. The History of the Standard Oil Company
By Ida M. Tarbell
McClure, Phillips, 1904
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. was the colossus of petroleum until Ida Tarbell’s seminal investigation hastened its court-ordered breakup a century ago. Tarbell’s work has lost none of its relevance as a Rosetta Stone for understanding the oil business and the character of the industrial titan who created it. Tarbell’s writing, though a deep critique of Standard’s monopolistic practices, includes a touch of grudging respect for the determination possessed by Rockefeller and the company he built. “This huge bulk, blackened by commercial sin, has always been strong in all great business qualities,” she wrote. “If it has played its great game with contemptuous indifference to fair play, and to nice legal points of view, it has played it with consummate ability, daring and address.”

2. The Seven Sisters
By Anthony Sampson
Viking, 1975
This is one of those forgotten classics that should not have been forgotten. “The Seven Sisters” reveals the political clout wielded by the largest Western oil companies back in the 1970s, when they dominated the industry. The book includes a telling moment from the era of the Arab oil embargo when the American companies that controlled Saudi Arabia’s petroleum cut off the flow to the U.S.—their own country. If you want to know whether BP’s zeal for profits in the Gulf of Mexico was an anomaly of selfishness in the history of the industry, just read a few pages of Anthony Samson’s meticulously reported book. His mining of the historical record includes a memorable reference to Sen. Frank Church’s comment at a 1974 inquiry into the power of the oil industry: “We are dealing with corporate entities which have many of the characteristics of nations.”

3. The Bottom Billion
By Paul Collier
Oxford, 2007
Oil is an amazing product of nature, though not always in ways we expect. Its discovery, for instance, can do more harm than good to the countries where it is found. In what is known as the resource curse, some countries become poorer, not richer, as the influx of oil revenues deadens other economic growth and encourages corruption. Oil riches also tend to fire the imagination of aspiring dictators. Paul Collier explores the paradox of oil’s baleful effects in revelatory detail in “The Bottom Billion.” Collier, an Oxford professor and former World Bank official who blessedly writes like neither an academic nor a banker, doesn’t restrict his argument to oil—plentiful supplies of gold, iron and other natural resources all can have deleterious effects on national development. Collier proposes a rescue of countries where the “bottom billion” reside, calling on the Group of Eight industrialized nations to institute preferential trade policies, do a better job of policing corruption and even consider military intervention.

4. Cities of Salt
By Abdelrahman Munif
Random House, 1987
If a reader desires a fictional account of oil’s discovery in Texas, there is “Giant,” the Edna Ferber novel turned into a classic movie starring Rock Hudson and James Dean. But what is the “Giant” of Arabia? It is called “Cities of Salt,” by Abdelrahman Munif, and it is justifiably regarded as one of the finest Arab novels of the 20th century. It tells the story of a fictional emirate (meant to be Saudi Arabia) that has just discovered oil and is being pushed into the modern world, losing part of its essence in the process. Far better than any nonfiction account, “Cities of Salt,” the first volume of a five-part epic, deftly explains the social and cultural upheavals in Middle Eastern countries that, with the discovery of oil, were catapulted from the nomadic to the modern. The novel was banned in Saudi Arabia, where the House of Saud did not want its subjects to read about a royal family corrupted by petroleum.

5. A Month and a Day
By Ken Saro-Wiwa
Penguin, 1995
The spill in the Gulf of Mexico has brought to American shores the sort of environmental disaster that many Nigerians have been living with for nearly a half-century. Their oil region, the Niger Delta, has endured years of leaks as well as warfare pitting local tribes against a corrupt government allied with multinational oil companies. The Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa famously led an environmental-justice movement in the 1990s, and his account of his imprisonment, “A Month and a Day,” presents a searing portrait of the ecological and political travesties that led him to put his life on the line (and he would lose it—the government executed him in 1995). Saro-Wiwa describes his Ogoni homeland as “a blighted countryside . . . full of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons; a land in which wildlife is unknown; a land of polluted streams and creeks, of rivers without fish.” After reading this book, you will find it hard to buy a gallon of gas without thinking of the misery at the other end of the pipeline.
—Mr. Maass’s “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil” has just been published in paperback by Vintage.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.