Salt: A World History

by Mark Kurlansky

Cover image

Publisher: Walker
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-8027-1373-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 452

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As important as salt is, and as much as we all use it constantly, it's not something I thought much about. I knew there were salt mines, I knew iodine was added to salt, and beyond that, I never gave it much thought. It is, however, critically important to both animal life and human history, has fascinating chemical and physical properties, encompasses more than just sodium chloride, and has contributed to a staggering variety of cuisine, words, and city names. There is plenty to write a history about, and I wish Kurlansky had written one.

This book is, alas, mistitled. A better title would be Salt: A Collection of Historical Anecdotes. It is certainly enough to whet one's appetite; it's full of interesting tidbits and odd corners of history, plus a few not so odd corners of history that one may be embarassed not to have already known (mine was the connection between salt and Gandhi in India). It tells stories about salt manufacture, paints brief portraits of life in several salt towns, discusses the rise of salt trading empires, and mentions several unique landmarks relating to salt. Unfortunately, it mostly fails to put any of this in any sort of broader context, and several topics (most notably the interesting chemistry of salt and the more recent developments in processing techniques) are ignored almost completely. If this had been a bad or uninteresting book, it wouldn't have been as frustrasting. As is, I came away knowing quite a bit more about the history of salt and feeling even less satisfied with what I know.

The primary flaw is a lack of context. Each section of the book is presented nearly in isolation, and apart from off-hand comments about some source of salt mentioned previously or some salt-making technique seen earlier, the reader is given nearly no sense of ordering, development, influence, or interaction between the anecdotes. Never does Kurlansky take a step back and give an overview of the major salt suppliers at one point in time and where they shipped salt to, or show the rise and decline of dominance of a particular supplier, or show a timeline of the evolution of salt making techniques, or for that matter show any timeline whatsoever. Rarely does he connect the dots between chapters of the book, giving it a scattered, random feel not helped by several competing organizational principles. Sometimes he seems to be presenting events in chronological order. Then he jumps back in time to give an overview of salt in one particular region over thousands of years. Then he jumps off into another anecdote that was related to the previous chapter. The result succeeds admirably as a fount of trivia but is deeply flawed as a history.

There were a few dodged topics that I found particularly frustrating as well. Salt in modern times is handled utterly differently than it used to be. It can no longer form trading empires, it's one of the cheapest commercial substances on Earth, and the method of manufacture was completely revolutionized by a technique to create uniform crystals regardless of the origin of salt. Kurlansky makes all of this quite clear, and then utterly fails to explain either the details or the history of that revolutionary technique. He mentions it constantly in asides, talks about how it made irrelevant factors that were once vitally important, and even goes through the evolution of modern packaging, and yet when it comes to the scientific core of this paradigm shift, there's nothing. This is, unfortunately, typical, although it's the worst case I remember. Kurlansky treats much of both the science and the politics just shallower than I was hoping he would.

It's really a shame, too, since this is a fascinating book. One can tell that Kurlansky found no shortage of stories to tell about salt, and despite my constant frustration with the way he tells them, Salt kept me interested through the whole book and gave me lots of interesting tidbits to research further or discuss with friends. It's a great idea for a book and Kurlansky clearly did broad research (though in a few places I'd question the accuracy and depth). It's just felt more like a book for someone who wanted to be entertained than someone who wanted to learn and understand a larger picture.

Recommended with serious caveats as light entertainment. Salt is a good book to read in bits and pieces (the chapters are fairly self-contained), between other things, or as a leavening of non-fiction when you don't feel like continuing the novel you're working on. Just be warned the book has little internal flow, and if you want the history and details, you're going to have to research further yourself.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-04-04

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