Cheese = Milk + Salt.
Okay, folks, I’m going to be honest with you. I didn’t enjoy this week’s read at all. Not because it wasn’t interesting – this book describes world history by following how humans made, traded and consumed salt. It has more to do with the tagline.
Because, you see – if you say “Salt – A World History”, I expect a WORLD History. However, this book falls into a very convenient trap, one that a lot of similar books fall into as well. It goes like this:
OLD CHINA! ROME! MEDIEVAL EUROPE! RENAISSANCE EUROPE! 1776 / THE UNITED STATES! BACK TO VICTORIAN EUROPE! TODAY!!
And I get it, I really do. It’s convenient, if nothing else. The periods listed above are simply the ones we know most about. Sources are easily accessible, and the author can presume that the reader has at least some background knowledge.
It is also very lazy storywriting. Because, you see, I’m going to put on my Captain Obvious Hat here – there’s more to the history of the world than that. And that’s exactly why I picked up this book – to hear about how Native Americans used salt. What about the Incas? Or, you know, THE ENTIRE AFRICAN CONTINENT?
This oversight always gets me very irritated, not just because it proves how little the author actually cared about created a coherent and all-compassing narrative. Hell, he could have called his book “Salt – a history in some parts of the world, and then only for some time periods.”
No, why this is important is because it enforces a certain unconscious bias in the reader: The parts that don’t show up can’t be that important, because they don’t show up. If there was something noteworthy about, say, the use of salt by the Aborigines, the author would have surely mentioned it, right?
As only some stories get told, we get the idea that those are the only ones worth telling. And there’s nothing to prove this point – after all, Humans have always needed salt to survive, so no matter where you go in human history, it will be there, and it would have been important.
The fact that Mark Kurlansky limits the story to the most obvious subplots is very disappointing. But it happens a lot, so I would ask you to keep an eye out for those kind of books.
It is a bit tricky to realize, at first – because the author repeats exactly the time periods that you know about. It is far easier to realize that, say, the author jumped over the Ancient Greeks & Romans than the Middle East.
And yes, I do understand that it is impossible to write a true world history, meaning all continents at all times. Of course, such a book would be very unwieldy (and far too long, because let’s face it – it’s salt. It’s white. It used to be super precious, now it’s not. Only so much you can say about it.)
But if that’s the case, don’t give your book the subtitle ‘A World History’. You have every right to limit your story to some aspects, but if that’s the case, at least limit yourself to the aspects that are not known, the ones I don’t know about yet.
If you want to have a good example, look no further than Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Road – A New History of the World” This subtitle promises, and the book delivers. This was the first time I have read a book on history that didn’t put Europe (and then the US) into the center of attention. Instead, it talks beautifully about the Silk Road, the Orient, the history of its people, and how it may rise again.
Oh, and one last dig – the author of Salt also has another book about Cod. I mean. What’s next. One about Pickles? It’s good to have one thing that you’re passionate about, but at what point does passion become being lazy in picking the subjects of your book?
Next week – After this week’s let down, I treated myself to a book I’ve wanted to read for a while!