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Mark Kurlansky – Salt: A World History

February 20, 2013

8. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (2002)

Length: 484 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Microhistory

Started: 23 November 2012
Finished: 10 February 2013

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? This book got mentioned every time someone brought up microhistories, so once I decided I liked the genre I had to lay hands on a copy.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 28 June 2008.

Put down your pretzels!
This book is all about the
history of salt.

Summary: Salt is so ubiquitous nowadays that it’s sometimes hard to remember that for much of human history, it’s been relatively difficult to come by. It’s something that all humans (all animals, for that matter) need to survive, but at times it has been rare enough to be used as currency. Wars have been fought over it, and wars have been won or lost because of it. In this book, Mark Kurlansky takes us through the history of salt, starting with the Egyptians, and the earliest Chinese salt mines, and moving through history and around the globe, looking at how we make salt, and how we use it, right up to the modern-day familiar metal pour-spout canisters that we all have in sitting our cupboards.

Review: In 2005-2006, when I was finally figuring out that maybe non-fiction wasn’t so bad after all (embarrassingly late in my reading life, I know), it seemed like this book was everywhere. Especially once I’d read Victoria Finlay’s Colors, I decided that microhistories were the non-fiction of choice as far as I was concerned, and Salt was the book that most people used as the primary example of the genre. I can’t say why I waited so long to read it, and I can’t decide whether or not it’s a good thing that I did. Because I have read a number of microhistories that attempt a similar task as Salt (on different subjects, of course), and accomplish that task much more successfully. So maybe it would have been better had I read it as a non-jaded non-fiction neophyte… or maybe it would have put me back off the genre.

All that sounds really negative, when I don’t mean it to. Salt had a lot of interesting parts. It was obviously exhaustively researched, and was jam-packed full of awesome trivia. (Two of my favorites: the phrase “to be worth one’s salt” and the word “salary” came from the fact that Roman soldiers were occasionally paid their wages in salt. Also, Avery Island, where Tabasco sauce originated, was and is a functioning salt mine that produces most of the salt used in the sauce.) (Okay, three of my favorites: 51% of US salt production is used for de-icing roads, vs. only 8% for food.) This book inspired me to think about something that I typically take for granted, which is definitely something I look for in my non-fiction. Kurlansky’s prose is smooth, and he’s good about working in quotes from period sources while still keeping things easy to read.

My main problem with this book was that it got repetitive in places. There are only so many different ways of producing salt (mining, several types of evaporating, etc.), but as Kurlansky looks at salt production around the world, he describes each country’s preferred method in detail, even if it’s not that much different from the previous section. Similarly, the process of making salt cod is not all that different from the process of making salted herring, but each fish gets its own chapter. On the one hand, I appreciate his thoroughness, but I did think things could have been condensed down without sacrificing some of the accuracy. In its place, I think he could have covered a slightly broader range of topics, moving away from straight-up history and venturing a little deeper into the biology and chemistry of salt. He touches on these topics, of course, but sometimes only glancingly. (Plus, of course I always think the biology angle could be expanded upon.) 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book definitely has a lot of interesting parts, so I don’t mean to scare anyone off it entirely. I think it’s worth reading for people who like microhistories in general or the history of food in particular (or whose doctors have put them on a low-sodium diet and want a historical perspective!). Just be prepared to skim when you get to the fourth or fifth recipe for salt fish.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Beth Fish Reads, Burning Leaves and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: I bought the rock in Spanish Catalonia, in the rundown hillside mining town of Cardona.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 358: “The joints were sealed either with mud or with a mixture of tung oil and lime.” – a fast-drying oil obtained from the seeds of a central Asian euphorbiaceous tree, Aleurites fordii, used in paints, varnishes, etc., as a drying agent and to give a water-resistant finish.
  • Location 843: “They mined rock salt, scraped dry lake beds like African sebkhas, boiled the brine from marshes, and burned marsh plants to extract salt from the ashes.” – A geologic feature, in North Africa, which is a smooth, flat, plain usually high in salt; after a rain the plain may become a marsh or a shallow lake until the water evaporates.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2013 8:27 am

    I heard a lot about this as well and never did read it, but because of the name I picked up a copy of his book 1968 which has been on a shelf a long time and I must get around to reading some time soon. Engaging non-fiction is great, trouble being there is a lot that just isn’t.

    • February 23, 2013 2:25 pm

      Claire – I hadn’t heard of it before, but 1968 sounds interesting. I’d be curious to see what he can do with a microhistory that’s micro by time span, not by subject matter.

  2. February 20, 2013 8:40 am

    I think I have had this on my TBR shelf for a similar amount of time. I do want to read it though, but it sounds like I could do some skimming! :–)

    • February 23, 2013 2:26 pm

      rhapsody – Definitely worth reading at some point, but I think either in small chunks or with occasional skimming would work better than straight through.

  3. February 20, 2013 11:09 am

    I’m generally a fan of microhistories (I liked Colour by Victoria Findlay too) so I think I will still give this a go. Shame it didn’t quite live up to your expectations though.

    • February 23, 2013 2:26 pm

      Sam – Alas, so it goes. Any recommendations for other microhistories that I should look into?

  4. February 20, 2013 12:09 pm

    I do enjoy non-fiction books that contain a lot of facts I can throw around and keep in my pea brain, but they grow old if they’re repetitive. Still, this does sound interesting.

    • February 23, 2013 2:27 pm

      Kathy – There’s definitely enough interesting stuff in here to make it worthwhile.

  5. February 21, 2013 2:57 pm

    It’s a shame this one wasn’t so good. I read another book by Mark Kurlansky – I think it was about cod – and I found it interesting. I hoped that this would be the same. I’ll have to lower my expectations.

    • February 21, 2013 5:14 pm

      It’s actually very similar to Cod in style & structure. There’s teh same “That bit’s good” and “Hm, heard that bit before.” Also lots of recipes.

      I’m also so-so on the audio versions, which I listened to: On the one hand, the sometimes repetitive stuff goes better with being slightly distracted, and on the other, both were read in a less-than-dynamic manner.

      • February 23, 2013 2:29 pm

        Bookwyrme – I don’t listen to a ton of non-fiction, since I need my audiobooks to be really engaging. Shame that the narration doesn’t help this one fit the bill!

    • February 23, 2013 2:28 pm

      Meghan – From what I’ve seen, people that have read more than one of his books typically liked Cod the best, and frequently Salt the least, so maybe I should have started with the fish?

  6. February 25, 2013 11:29 am

    I’ve had this in my shelf for years – saw it in a bookstore one day and couldn’t believe that someone wrote a whole book about salt. And there I was without absolutely any knowledge of salt, I had to have the book, it was the only answer! :-) And it’s been sitting there since that day, thanks for reminding me that I have it. I didn’t know that the genre had a name, I think I’m a micro-history fan too!

    • March 10, 2013 4:17 pm

      Joanna – I’ve heard the term used for slightly different things (both looking at the history of one specific thing, and looking at the broader strokes of history through the lens of something non-typical). I like both, but I think I like the first more.

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