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Salt: A World History

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In his fifth work of nonfiction, Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establish In his fifth work of nonfiction, Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock


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In his fifth work of nonfiction, Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establish In his fifth work of nonfiction, Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions. 

16 review for Salt: A World History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    This book changed my life. I picked it up because fiction novels were all looking the same to me, and because it was thick enough to last the long train ride from Dusseldorf to Maastricht. School textbooks were the only non-fiction I'd ever read, and they had not prepared me for the vibrant and engaging writing found in Salt. Since reading this book I have become a devoted fan of non-fiction writing, which has exposed me to a whole new world of literature. This book changed my life. I picked it up because fiction novels were all looking the same to me, and because it was thick enough to last the long train ride from Dusseldorf to Maastricht. School textbooks were the only non-fiction I'd ever read, and they had not prepared me for the vibrant and engaging writing found in Salt. Since reading this book I have become a devoted fan of non-fiction writing, which has exposed me to a whole new world of literature.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Marc

    What a disappointment this was. Kurlansky clearly has searched complete encyclopaedias on the word 'salt' and has poured it all down in this book, with no connecting narrative or analysis. Facts, myths and stories are mixed almost randomly. And okay, you do get the impression that salt has played a very important role throughout history, and even all around the world, but in the end you're stuck with a dizzying amount of (unreliable) facts. Kurlansky even has the annoying habit of adding all kin What a disappointment this was. Kurlansky clearly has searched complete encyclopaedias on the word 'salt' and has poured it all down in this book, with no connecting narrative or analysis. Facts, myths and stories are mixed almost randomly. And okay, you do get the impression that salt has played a very important role throughout history, and even all around the world, but in the end you're stuck with a dizzying amount of (unreliable) facts. Kurlansky even has the annoying habit of adding all kinds of other non-salt-related information; unfortunately for him, he regularly makes big mistakes and he repeats himself constantly. This is certainly not the way that World History should go.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Elana

    AIYIYI... I just couldn't take this book. I was determined to read it after I chose it for a challenge I had entered but my goodness was it a struggle. I don't know if it was because I had just finished a textbook size of a book that was purely about science (A Short History of Nearly Everything) and was in major fiction withdrawal, or the fact that this book was breathtakingly boring, but I could literally not read more than 15 pages before I actually started to drift off into a deep slumber. AIYIYI... I just couldn't take this book. I was determined to read it after I chose it for a challenge I had entered but my goodness was it a struggle. I don't know if it was because I had just finished a textbook size of a book that was purely about science (A Short History of Nearly Everything) and was in major fiction withdrawal, or the fact that this book was breathtakingly boring, but I could literally not read more than 15 pages before I actually started to drift off into a deep slumber. I had to think about and plan out times where I would be awake enough to read. I had to get multiple nights of decent amounts of sleep before I could continue on my huge undertaking of reading more than 20 pages. It was as if Kurlansky was intentionally aiming for the reader to not give a rats a** about salt. For the reader to actually not want to learn anything further about something that kinda seemed interesting at the time. The information Kurlansky gave me was so irrelevant and uninteresting I found myself having to reread lines over and over and still not be able to understand what the significance of it being there was. I was really excited to read Salt: A World History because I thought it would be an unique experience to read about a topic that most people take for granted. To learn some new and interesting things about a topic that is very rarely a point of conversation. But what I found was what I thought the stereotype of books about random specific topics would be like. Completely and totally uninteresting and boring. Just because a book is non-fiction and about salt doesn't mean the writing as to be blander than an instruction manual on how to put together a flash light.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Micah Cummins

    Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky is an enthralling work. Immaculately researched and presented in a coherent and understandable way, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was shocked most of the time by how much of a major role salt has played in both modern and ancient human history. Both in a militarist and economic sense, salt has in many ways been the fuel for human advancement. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking for an incredibly engaging non-fiction read. Five stars.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Grumpus

    This is based upon the audio download from [www.Audible.com]Narrated by: Scott BrickThe legendary pipes of Scott Brick did little to enhance this biography of the ubiquity of salt. The book is a curate’s egg—there are dull parts but there are also some very interesting parts. I didn't think it possible to have someone talk about salt for 13 hours and 43 minutes but it was.The book begins with facts about salt and the sharing of some of the salt industry’s 14,000 uses for salt. It was interesting This is based upon the audio download from [www.Audible.com]Narrated by: Scott BrickThe legendary pipes of Scott Brick did little to enhance this biography of the ubiquity of salt. The book is a curate’s egg—there are dull parts but there are also some very interesting parts. I didn't think it possible to have someone talk about salt for 13 hours and 43 minutes but it was.The book begins with facts about salt and the sharing of some of the salt industry’s 14,000 uses for salt. It was interesting to learn that the salt in the human body is equivalent to what would be found in 3 or 4 salt shakers.The early history of salt was only slightly interesting but as the history moved to Europe, you learn how everyday words had their origin with salt—such as salary and town names in England ending in “wich” have salt-related origins.The best part of the book for me was the role it played in U.S. history (as that is what I like to read about most). I did not realize the strategic importance of salt, especially during the Civil War. My favorite passage from the book was actually a quote from General William Tecumseh Sherman in August 1862. He stated, “Salt is eminently contraband because of its use in curing meats without which armies cannot be subsisted.” In all my readings of U.S. history and the Civil War, I've never come across a discussion of the importance of salt. This was eye-opening.It was a slow, dry book but one that definitely imparts knowledge.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kian

    The history of salt is super interesting, and I learned a lot of amazing facts about human history from reading this book, BUT... the editing was pretty bad. I mean, it has to be pretty bad for you to actually notice that a book is really poorly written. Chapters would end out of nowhere, there were tons of non-sequiturs, etc. It got progressively worse as I got through the book- and then towards the end it became an advertisement for Mortons Salt. I'd recommend this book from a library, but not The history of salt is super interesting, and I learned a lot of amazing facts about human history from reading this book, BUT... the editing was pretty bad. I mean, it has to be pretty bad for you to actually notice that a book is really poorly written. Chapters would end out of nowhere, there were tons of non-sequiturs, etc. It got progressively worse as I got through the book- and then towards the end it became an advertisement for Mortons Salt. I'd recommend this book from a library, but not for purchase.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Quin

    the author read everything there is to read about salt. then he relentlessly put every bit of it in this book. you will wish for the end waay before you get there, i promise.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Deborah Ideiosepius

    In this non-fiction microhistory I expected to find a lot of really fascinating stuff about this amazing mineral without which humans (and many other animals) cant survive and which has shaped trading and cultures. Also, I expected to be fascinated, informed and intrigued as I have always wanted to read microhistories about coffee and salt.I am really. really sad to have failed to enjoy this book.A lot of that information is there, as expected but it it failed to fascinate and intrigue. It also In this non-fiction microhistory I expected to find a lot of really fascinating stuff about this amazing mineral without which humans (and many other animals) cant survive and which has shaped trading and cultures. Also, I expected to be fascinated, informed and intrigued as I have always wanted to read microhistories about coffee and salt.I am really. really sad to have failed to enjoy this book.A lot of that information is there, as expected but it it failed to fascinate and intrigue. It also informed less often than I had been hoping. There was virtually no science of any kind, it was about trade and human history, which is ok, but it was not well done. The writing felt like it was lists a lot of the time, it repeated itself SO much of the time that one became bored by the information, even though the information itself could have been interesting. For example: So many cultures used salt pans and because of the physical chemistry nature of salt they were all very similar, I get it. But instead of detailing exactly what every single culture did - when they are nearly identical - maybe having described the first one you did not need to write exactly the same minutae of detail for EVERY subsequent culture that did the same thing? I think even the narrator must have been bored; he is a very experienced narrator/actor, as I understand it, but the long lists of salt pans and cultures was often read in an unvarying drone. It might be better read than listened to, as one would be able to skim over repetition and recipes.A problem I had with it personally, is that I have read another book by this author Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World which I thoroughly enjoyed, and a large part of Salt: A World History seems to have the exact same stuff in it, down to the recipes. Those recipes which I mostly skim read over the first time, but had to listen to in agonising detail here, as it was narrated in a drone.As we progressed through this book, I was so bored that I was spending more time analysing my responses to the book than what was being said. Here is the conclusion I reached; the author is a great researcher, GREAT! He is especially interested in history and trade but not so much in science and the natural world. Not at all, in fact. Over many years of research and note taking, he noticed how often salt cropped up in both history and trade. At some point, he or his publishers decided it was a shame not to use a lot of that research even if most of it HAD been used in other books. So he wrote Salt, a book that could have been a dream of a book, but is instead tedious as it repeated large sections from pervious books. It reads more like a pile of notes assembled by a Phd student who keeps changing his major and can't put his notes in order properly or assemble them into a cognitive narrative for his thesis. I would send this thesis draft back for further editing, which is what the publishers should have done with Salt: A World History.This was a Did Not Finish for me at the end of chapter 14. I realised my library loan had expired and my main feeling was relief, I had no urge to renew or re-borrow and I am seriously doubting whether I want to read anything more by this author.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sense of History

    No, this is certainly not a World History of Salt. Oh yes, I concede: there's a lot of salt in it. Kurlansky has stuffed a stunning amount of knowledge about this commodity in this book. But he has forgotten to tell a narrative, to look for the bigger picture, to analyse basic economic or cultural trends. And on top of that he has left his critical gaze at home. In the end all he offers is this mumbo jumbo of facts, titbits of knowledge, myths and nice stories, all about salt. I hope one day som No, this is certainly not a World History of Salt. Oh yes, I concede: there's a lot of salt in it. Kurlansky has stuffed a stunning amount of knowledge about this commodity in this book. But he has forgotten to tell a narrative, to look for the bigger picture, to analyse basic economic or cultural trends. And on top of that he has left his critical gaze at home. In the end all he offers is this mumbo jumbo of facts, titbits of knowledge, myths and nice stories, all about salt. I hope one day someone will do a better job.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Michael Burnam-Fink

    Salt is a meandering popular history through that most commonplace of kitchen aids, salt. Since earliest human history, salt has been valued as a key nutrient, preservative, and enhancer of flavor. A ready supply of salt was at the bottom of ancient military strength, as an army marched on salted provisions.Salt can be gathered off the ground from dry lake beds, mined from subterranean deposits, or gathered in certain ocean marshes. Along sunny shores, evaporation ponds can hasten the process, w Salt is a meandering popular history through that most commonplace of kitchen aids, salt. Since earliest human history, salt has been valued as a key nutrient, preservative, and enhancer of flavor. A ready supply of salt was at the bottom of ancient military strength, as an army marched on salted provisions.Salt can be gathered off the ground from dry lake beds, mined from subterranean deposits, or gathered in certain ocean marshes. Along sunny shores, evaporation ponds can hasten the process, while in northern and inland locations, salt must be boiled from brine, a labor and fuel intensive process. As a popular history, this book plods through the centuries, and mostly discusses Europe, though sophisticated ancient Chinese saltworks get an appreciative nod. Recipes for salted cuisine add human interest. Unfortunately, the book peters out in the industrial era, with a cursory description of modern vacuum distillation boiling and the rise of Big Salt, most famously Morton's brand in the USA. The book is comprehensive and frequently interesting, yet also the very definition of trivial. The closest thing to a thesis are sections on the use of state monopolies of salt as the basis of economic and military power.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin

    450 pages is a lot of salt. Though interesting by the end I was very ready to be done with it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Burton

    For a guy who literally looks like the Dos Equis man, Mark Kurlansky has managed to find some of the least interesting subject matter I could imagine and turn them into full histories. Whether it's salt (this one), cod (1988), oysters (2005), or the Basques (1991)...well, okay. A history of the Basques sounds like it has some potential.My point is: Kurlansky seems to look around for the driest subjects and then to begin to research the heck out of it. And yes, he really does look like the Dos Eq For a guy who literally looks like the Dos Equis man, Mark Kurlansky has managed to find some of the least interesting subject matter I could imagine and turn them into full histories. Whether it's salt (this one), cod (1988), oysters (2005), or the Basques (1991)...well, okay. A history of the Basques sounds like it has some potential.My point is: Kurlansky seems to look around for the driest subjects and then to begin to research the heck out of it. And yes, he really does look like the Dos Equis man. "Stay thirsty, my friend." Mark Kurlansky[/caption]And let me tell you, reading Salt: A World History made me thirsty. And hungry. Between examining the long and storied history of salt over the millennia, Kurlansky peppers the text with recipes in which sodium chloride plays a major, if not crucial, ingredient. Here we see pickling, preservation, and flavoring, and yet, we should not think that Salt: A World History is aimed at the culinary inclined. Kurlansky looks at geography, the rise of civilizations, and the placement of forts. His book is fascinating, including all sorts of salt-related trivia, from the beginnings of Tabasco Sauce to a scheme to introduce camels in the American west's deserts to how salt came to be both common and perfectly granulated. From the location of Roman military depots near salt deposits to the role a shortage in salt played in bringing about the end of the American Civil War, Kurlansky is all over the map.However, if there is a critique to be made, then it is this all-over-the-map-ness that seems to typify Kurlansky's style. Running from ancient to modern times, Kurlansky doesn't seem to follow a single cohesive narrative, with sections starting and stopping without apparent reason or cohesion. It doesn't detract from the value of the information, but Salt: A World History does make for an occasional dry and eclectic read.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tracey

    Previously read Sept 2003 - Checked this out from the library on the recommendation of Carla IreneThe title is pretty self-explanatory: the book discusses how salt was accessed, processed, sold and used from ancient times through today. I was pleased to see non-European cultures were included - especially since China and India have had such a rich history entwined with this essential mineral. However, I would have liked to see more info about North & South America and sub-Saharan Africa, and I d Previously read Sept 2003 - Checked this out from the library on the recommendation of Carla IreneThe title is pretty self-explanatory: the book discusses how salt was accessed, processed, sold and used from ancient times through today. I was pleased to see non-European cultures were included - especially since China and India have had such a rich history entwined with this essential mineral. However, I would have liked to see more info about North & South America and sub-Saharan Africa, and I don't remember anything about Australia at all. The book itself is very readable - covering both some more technical aspects of collecting and refining salt, as well as giving recipes and discussing the economic aspects. While I'm sure most people know that the word "salary" comes from the Latin for salt, I didn't realize that in pre-industrial times, if a nation started buying huge amounts of salt, that was a possible indication that they were going to war, as all the rations for the soldiers would need to be preserved. I learned quite a bit about Italian and Chinese history & culture that I didn't know before - and I never realized that salt was one of the main reasons for India's revolt against England. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in an overview of history (with a twist) and plan to read more books by Mr. Kurlansky.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    A beautiful exploration into the role this substance has played in the human grand narrative. The first two thirds were very informative and interesting, but it wasn't until I got to the section about India that I was totally enthralled. The story of how Ghandi used the British imposed salt laws, and his disobedience of them, to gain freedom for his country was truly riveting. I can't help but draw parallels between this story and other moments in history. It's long been a fact that civic rebell A beautiful exploration into the role this substance has played in the human grand narrative. The first two thirds were very informative and interesting, but it wasn't until I got to the section about India that I was totally enthralled. The story of how Ghandi used the British imposed salt laws, and his disobedience of them, to gain freedom for his country was truly riveting. I can't help but draw parallels between this story and other moments in history. It's long been a fact that civic rebellion follows punitive costs associated with the fundamental materials of life. The tea tax in the American colonies, poll taxes, whiskey taxes. I'm sure an economics historian or a political scientist could find many more relevant examples than I can. Now we find ourselves entering into a similar scenario with the crippling price of gasoline. The present rise in the cost of gas isn't because of taxes entirely, although they do play a significant role in certain states such as California. Our current predicament with fuel prices can't be laid at the feet of government because the government is not in control, big business is. Which represents a whole different problem. What really rises to the surface in book like this is the same old ancient story: yet another example of those in power screw those who aren't to the wall.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Phoebe

    What I learned:*Everybody loves salt fish*Chinese invention stories war with European invention stories - WHO WILL WIN?!*The planets resources -salt, sugar, oil- inspire ruthlessness in certain types of humans - the urge to Pokémon-collect-them-all is deep seated and endless*It's a lot easier to see mistakes and bad behavior via birds eye view of history *Write down the mundane stuff and leave it around for historians to find, otherwise expect to be forgotten once you're gone*Eccentric behavior What I learned:*Everybody loves salt fish*Chinese invention stories war with European invention stories - WHO WILL WIN?!*The planets resources -salt, sugar, oil- inspire ruthlessness in certain types of humans - the urge to Pokémon-collect-them-all is deep seated and endless*It's a lot easier to see mistakes and bad behavior via birds eye view of history *Write down the mundane stuff and leave it around for historians to find, otherwise expect to be forgotten once you're gone*Eccentric behavior pays dividends *Deliciousness travels in all directions, and a lot of it emanates from Asia & Italy*SALT SALT SALT SALT*FISH FISH FISH FISH*It seems to remain ok for historians to talk about human slavery like it's just this thing that, y'know, happens on the way to riches. No biggie*A little humor goes a long way, especially when you're reporting boring stuff*Salt*Fish*Supreme smelliness *What once ruined lives and attracted cash, is now thrown down on our roads with little interest and care*I still care little for dates and places, some things haven't changed since high school*Sweden was once poor --I had no idea! Today they're like the middle class society poster child*So .... what's next for the world's favorite compound?

  16. 4 out of 5

    Courtney

    Officially two stars is supposed to mean "it was okay" and one star is supposed to signify "I didn't like it," but there are many degrees of books I dislike and this one was moderately better than it could have been. The writing is OK, Kurlanky has energy, but he attacked this work of non-fiction with no clear agenda. If there's a thesis beyond "salt is important," Kurlansky fails to articulate it. If there's a logic to how this book is organized, that's not clear either. Chapters don't seem to Officially two stars is supposed to mean "it was okay" and one star is supposed to signify "I didn't like it," but there are many degrees of books I dislike and this one was moderately better than it could have been. The writing is OK, Kurlanky has energy, but he attacked this work of non-fiction with no clear agenda. If there's a thesis beyond "salt is important," Kurlansky fails to articulate it. If there's a logic to how this book is organized, that's not clear either. Chapters don't seem to be chronological or geographical, and they don't build to form a broad picture or gradually make an argument. As I was jolted from one fascinating anecdote to another, I gradually grew angry with "Salt." How can someone with so much writing ability and so much research put it all between two hard covers and not try to make anything big or important out of the whole deal?

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