Tuesday, 8 January 2013

the origins and value of salt explored in Mark Kurlansky's Salt

From The Week of December 31, 2012

As much as we endeavor to give proper credit to the substances and systems that underpin our lives, we all take for granted life's staples. For from the global climate that protects us to the earthly food that nourishes us, these things have always been there, readily available and rarely absent. Their sheer ubiquity leads us to foolishly conclude that it has forever been, and will always be, thus, a truth that has put at risk everything we hold dear. As dire as this may sound, there are ways of mitigating this damage, just as their are ways of not taking the ubiquitous for granted. The most effective of these is knowledge, the means by which all ignorance is banished and reality embraced. Mr. Kurlansky helps us make just such a transition with one of life's most underappreciated commodities in this fact-heavy exploration of salt.

Thought once to be exceedingly rare, salt is one of the most widespread substances on earth. Used in everything from the enlivening of our oceans to the functioning of our minds and bodies, it is a fundamental substance in the propagation and nourishment of life. These truths, however, have only become apparent in the most recent centuries, times in which science has had the freedom to expose salt's secrets. In earlier eras, salt was thought rare enough to be not only a commodity, but one precious enough to be treated like gold, confined to chests and guarded by soldiers. This period of artificial scarcity has left a lasting legacy in our language where salt is the etymology for any number of frequently used words and idioms.

Beyond its role in biochemistry, however, salt performed a key service in the creation of human civilization. For its deployment is one of the most effective means of preserving food, a reality which allowed early, adventurous societies to spread out from their origins, across mountains and over oceans, to explore the unknown and plant there civilization. Without salt, we might have never had empire. And without empire, we might not have today.

From ancient China to medieval Europe, from saltmines to salt chests, Mr. Kurlansky relentlessly exposes the history of this most widely used substance. And so effective is his capturing of salt's prior preciousness that it makes poignant irony out of the fact that we, today, suffer from an doverabundance of salt in our diets. This would have been dismissed as absurd in times past, when salt was considered valuable enough to be the stuff of state monopolies. The notion that it would have been spent so thoughtlessly would have been cause for uproar. But the author is out to achieve more than irony. He has set himself here the goal of capturing the ways in which salt has shaped civilization, revealing, on the journey, a surprising set of enjoyable facts that, while once deadly, have settled comfortably into the arena of intriguingly humorous.

For all its facts and its revelations, however, Salt fails to cohere around a narrative,a throughline with which Mr. Kurlansky can guide his readers. Too often, the author simply trudges from era to era, society to society, reconstructing the traditions of the past for the amusement of the present. He does not engender the work with vision, with a unifying sentiment that would allow us to come away moved instead of simply charmed. And there can be no doubt that such a narrative it exists. For how else would civilization have spread if the preservation of food was unto impossible? How would we have evolved differently if salt was as scarce as once thought? Mr. Kurlansky's work is the poorer for neglecting such speculation.

Salt will entertain those readers who enjoy both trivia and irony, but its failure to be more than this narrows its audience considerably. (3/5 Stars)

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