Tiffany's Reviews > Salt: A World History

Salt by Mark Kurlansky
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Jan 02, 12

bookshelves: 2011, history, favourites
Read from November 13 to December 02, 2011

I'd been meaning to pick up this book for almost three years, having once seen it on a GoodReads list called "History of Random Things." I thought the list in itself featured a great idea: base a history book on a common item and see how many angles one could uncover. For those who enjoy random trivia, it would be an intriguing way to gain an overview on world history while learning about something you'd never expected to study. I knew Salt would contain some wonderfully random information, but I didn't know just how far the book would reach into the narrative of world events.

Salt is basically a mineral that is formed when an acid and an alkaline collide. There are many different kinds of salt, and our body needs salt to survive even though we do not produce it naturally. This fact alone has forced us to be creative in the ways we obtain salt, either from the earth or the sea. Salt is found in most areas of the world; it's rare that a country does not have salt as a resource. But as with all things that are necessary for human survival, the need for this resource has been exploited by governments and the elite since 2000 BC when the world's first monopoly was established in China on salt. Ever since, countries across time and space have controlled the production of salt, taxed the poor for salt, fought wars over regions that contain salt, and placed tariffs on the transportation of salt. Kurlansky's book provides a complete telling of these events throughout history, beginning with percussion drilling in the Sichuan region of China, to sea salt extraction in the Mediterranean, to the development of the salt mining industry in North America. I thought it astonishing the influence salt had on politics and international relations, even thought it makes perfect sense that the resource would determine the status of a country given its importance to a population's well-being.

I didn't know so many foods originated from salt preservation, or pickling. For the longest time, the cod industry was largely dependent on the salt industry, as salt was needed to preserve the fish long enough to transport it to the masses. Salt prevented famine throughout the world, and I'm sure the earth's population would be a lot lower than it is now had it not been for salt preservation. Kurlansky does an excellent job of expanding the content to include other industries and inventions that developed as a result of salt without losing focus of the main topic. He carries the reader through such interesting stories as the Chinese invention of indoor plumbing as a result of extracting salt from the earth with bamboo, or famed chemist Humphrey Davy's discovery of magnesium, which prevents the corrosion of steel and other light metal alloys. It is in this way that the book exceeds a reader's expectations, as I learned so much more than I thought I would about the world.

Salt is almost never a tedious read despite being dense with information. Kurlansky's writing employs a perfect balance of engagement and precision, even taking the liberty at times to be sarcastic and humorous. It's rare that I anticipate a book this much and that my expectations are exceeded. I'll definitely be reading his book called Cod -- and more history on random things, for that matter.
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Reading Progress

11/14/2011 page 37
7.0% "The Chineses invented indoor plumbing out of a process for extracting salt from the ground. THIS BOOK IS SO COOL."
11/16/2011 page 105
21.0% "Wow. Salt."
11/21/2011 page 196
40.0% "This is a book begging to be read slowly."

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