For those of you who aren’t familiar with micro-histories, they are histories about very limited topics. Micro-histories are usually fairly short because of their focus but can be fascinating and go into great detail on a very specialized subject. The best of these that I have read is Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife, who writes on math and science topics. However, I read that so long ago that I would not be able to write a good review of it.
Today’s review is of Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, who has specialized in writing micro-histories. The book traces what is known about the collection, processing, and uses of salt from the earliest times and the role it plays in history. He quotes commentators from ancient China, Rome, and Egypt on the qualities of salt. He explains how certain cities became prominent in early times because of salt mines or salt fields on bodies of water and how empires (for example, that of Venice) were built around salt, either making it or trading it. He also discusses its close connection with cod and other things important to world history.
The book is a micro-history full of micro-histories. Kurlansky tells about the mines in Poland that have chandeliers carved from salt and explains that the downfall of the French monarchy was a result of the hated salt tax, which placed a heavier burden on the peasants than it did the aristocracy. He explains that one of the reasons for the success of Napolean’s army was the discovery by Nicolas Appert of how to preserve meat by canning (using salt), allowing the army to have a more reliable source of food than simply pillaging the villages. He explains the reasons for Mahatma Ghandi’s illegal march to the sea to gather salt and why it galvanized resistance to British rule in India. He includes recipes.
Basically, if a subject has anything to do with salt, he writes about it. Salt is an interesting book, although it contains many digressions and seems unfocused at times. To pursue a point, he sometimes goes backward and forward in history, which can be confusing. The recipes were interesting at first, as they come from all times in history and from many different countries, but after awhile I felt that they interrupted the flow, especially as some were more than a page long.
I’m told that Kurlansky’s book Cod is even better, and I have that on my shelf waiting to be read, but he said so much about cod in Salt that I’m wondering what more there is to say!
Despite my caveats, if you want to read an engrossing book that will tell you many interesting things you probably didn’t know, read Salt.