Six months ago, it would have been hard to imagine many readers eager for an 895-page book on oil. Supplies were abundant and prices had never been lower. In a fit of myopic optimism, government officials even tried to convince the military that oil had lost its strategic significance.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait corrected that illusion and gave readers good reason to ponder Daniel Yergin's surprisingly lively new history of oil, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. Despite its length, his narrative moves swiftly from the invention of modern drilling techniques in the 1850s to the political impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He has focused on a cast of colorful characters: entrepreneurs like John D. Rockefeller; wildcat drillers like Columbus ''Dad'' Joiner, who struck it rich in East Texas in 1930; and cool bureaucrats like Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani.
Will the crisis in the Persian Gulf, or the growing awareness of the dangers of global warming, change our outlook on this problematic source of power? Yergin, an energy consultant by profession, anticipates that ''the hydrocarbon civilization that oil built could be shaken to its foundations.'' In the meantime, petroleum looms larger than ever. A-