Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Fisherman and The Jinni

It seems like the Cultural History section of a bookstore could contain almost anything – in practice, books about food and tattooing seem to predominate. I went through three of Mark Kurlansky's books (on the former subject) in pretty quick succession some months ago, beginning with Cod which I'd recommend to anyone as succinct and fascinating. The only problem with these semi-pop histories is they give one a lot of slightly glib and very repeatable "facts" that roll right off the tongue in subsequent conversation (the Basques arrived in the New World before Columbus but kept the source of their huge catches of fish a secret, and so on) without really rigorous footnoting. Additionally, they tend to see much of human history through their single lens. Nonetheless, persuasive and well worth reading.

In Salt even more so than in Cod, he purports to explain vast swathes of human endeavor in terms of the pursuit of a single commodity, one which is at least a fundamental enough item that the argument seems convincing. One thing I enjoy about history of this sort is when it takes for granted that you already know certain things or can pick them up by inference without a great deal of tangential explanation. For example, the chapters on China left me feeling I had a better grip on the succession of dynasties than any number of less successful attempts to read an entire book on Chinese history.

Even aside from what an enjoyable writer Kurlansky is, and how you feel about food writing in general (and oysters in particular), The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell is as engaging a history of New York City as any I have read. Also both this book in its picture of New York and Salt with regard to England make it quite clear how the story of pollution and destruction of the environment in the course of food production is by no means a problem that just appeared in the last half century.

Finally, last week I picked up Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage which completes the story of the cycle of production and consumption. It also combines a perfectly paced history of its subject with an inescapably alarmed conclusion about what we have brought ourselves to. Along the way (and this book is quite carefully footnoted), she eludicates some remarkable aspects of her subject. I particularly liked the story of "the invention of litter", part of a concerted campaign by an industry front group called KAB (Keep America Beautiful) to shift the blame for pollution onto individuals and away from the corporations who were (and are), by an enormous margin, the principal cause of the problem. KAB's productions include an early 60s "educational" film narrated by Ronald Reagan and those mawkish 70s television ads in which an American Indian sheds a single tear over a despoiled landscape.

1 comment:

Owen said...

Hey Bob, I read his "1968" recently, he certainly trowels out a huge treasure trove of esoteric and not so esoteric anecdotes in his travels... hope you are well !