Literacy 2008: Book 7: Salt

saltcover.jpgBook
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Synopsis
The history of “the only rock we eat,” and how finding, producing, and transporting it has shaped economies and governments from pre-history to the modern day.

Pros
Extremely well-organized, with short chapters presented in chronological order describing how a particular region and a particular group of people were affected by salt during that time. Keeps the subject interesting by using personal stories wherever possible. Exhaustively researched, throwing together travelogues, personal accounts, recipes, and descriptions of scientific breakthroughs and production techniques, along with the geography and descriptions of economics, governments and trade routes you’d expect from a history book.

Satisfied my trivia requirement in the first few chapters — e.g. the words “soldier,” “salary,” and calling the Celts “Gauls” all derived from words for salt. Answered a question I’ve been wondering for years, but was always too lazy to look up: what are those weird geometric pink and brown pools in the south San Francisco Bay? (They’re salt ponds). Manages to follow tangents like the development of tabasco and the creation of Israeli resorts on the Dead Sea, without straying too far from the main story.

Cons
It’s still a book about salt. The book spends so much time talking about salted cod and Basque salt producers, that you can’t help but feel like the author cribbed a lot of the material from his earlier books. Reading the book kept making me crave weird food and games of Civilization. The subject inspires a ton of terrible cliches and puns in book reviews.

Verdict
The highest compliment I can give to any documentary or history work is that it reminds me of James Burke’s Connections series. Despite the quote from Anthony Bourdain on its cover, Salt is more than just a food history book; it really does feel like an extended episode of Connections with a fixation on one particular topic. You get a real sense of the epic history of salt, and you can understand how something that is now so common could have once been scarce enough to influence the outcome of wars and the success of entire civilizations.

2 thoughts on “Literacy 2008: Book 7: Salt”

  1. Interestingly enough, I too have recently shown an interest in salt. On the plane back from Orlando last week, they showed a documentary on water. They explained that the Mediterranean actually loses much more water to evaporation than it receives from rivers and rain. Therefore, without the Straights of Gibralter the sea would dry up. Which it did! Millions of years ago, the Mediterranean was a desert. All the water evaporated, leaving all the salt behind. That’s why there are now salt mines under Sicily that could be mined for over a million years and never run out. Pretty amazing!

  2. Comparing this book to Connections is spot on. I hadn’t thought of it that way before even though I enjoyed Salt and really like Connections. After finishing Salt, I also ended up reading Cod by the same author and enjoyed as well. I have The Grid by Philip Schewe on my list to read and hope it’s as compelling even if its subject is relatively modern. Three cheers for entertaining non-fiction books on mundane subjects! 🙂

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