Books by Kurlansky, Mark

Kurlansky, Mark. 1968 : The Year That Rocked the World. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-345-45582-7.
In the hands of an author who can make an entire book about Salt (February 2005) fascinating, the epochal year of 1968 abounds with people, events, and cultural phenomena which make for a compelling narrative. Many watershed events in history: war, inventions, plague, geographical discoveries, natural disasters, economic booms and busts, etc. have causes which are reasonably easy to determine. But 1968, like the wave of revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 (January 2002), seems to have been driven by a zeitgeist—a spirit in the air which independently inspired people to act in a common way.

The nearly simultaneous “youthquake” which shook societies as widespread and diverse as France, Poland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and the United States, and manifested itself in radical social movements: antiwar, feminism, black power, anti-authoritarianism, psychedelic instant enlightenment, revolutionary and subversive music, and the emergence of “the whole world is watching” wired planetary culture of live satellite television, all of which continue to reverberate today, seemed so co-ordinated that politicians from Charles de Gaulle, Mexican el presidente Díaz Ordaz, and Leonid Brezhnev were convinced it must be the result of deliberate subversion by their enemies, and were motivated to repressive actions which, in the short term, only fed the fire. In fact, most of the leaders of the various youth movements (to the extent they can be called “leaders”—in those individualistic and anarchistic days, most disdained the title) had never met, and knew about the actions of one another only from what they saw on television. Radicals in the U.S. were largely unaware of the student movement in Mexico before it exploded into televised violence in October.

However the leaders of 1968 may have viewed themselves, in retrospect they were for the most part fascinating, intelligent, well-educated, motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, and optimistic that they could—nothing like the dour, hateful, contemptuous, intolerant, and historically and culturally ignorant people one so often finds today in collectivist movements which believe themselves descended from those of 1968. Consider Mark Rudd's famous letter to Grayson Kirk, president of Columbia University, which ended with the memorable sentence, “I'll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I'm sure you don't like a whole lot: ‘Up against the wall, mother****er, this is a stick-up.’” (p. 197), which shocked his contemporaries with the (quoted) profanity, but strikes readers today mostly for the grammatically correct use of “whom”. Who among present-day radicals has the eloquence of Mario Savio's “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop” (p. 92), yet had the politeness to remove his shoes to avoid damaging the paint before jumping on a police car to address a crowd. In the days of the Free Speech Movement, who would have imagined some of those student radicals, tenured professors four decades later, enacting campus speech codes and enforcing an intellectual monoculture on their own students?

It is remarkable to read on p. 149 how the French soixante-huitards were “dazzled” by their German contemporaries: “We went there and they had their banners and signs and their security forces and everything with militaristic tactics. It was new to me and the other French.” One suspects they weren't paying attention when their parents spoke of the spring of 1940! Some things haven't changed: when New Left leaders from ten countries finally had the opportunity to meet one another at a conference sponsored by the London School of Economics and the BBC (p. 353), the Americans dismissed the Europeans as all talk and no action, while the Europeans mocked the U.S. radicals' propensity for charging into battle without thinking through why, what the goal was supposed to be, or how it was to be achieved.

In the introduction, the author declares his sympathy for the radical movements of 1968 and says “fairness is possible but true objectivity is not”. And, indeed, the book is written from the phrasebook of the leftist legacy media: good guys are “progressives” and “activists”, while bad guys are “right wingers”, “bigots”, or “reactionaries”. (What's “progressive” ought to depend on your idea of progress. Was SNCC's expulsion of all its white members [p. 96] on racial grounds progress?) I do not recall a single observation which would be considered outside the box on the editorial page of the New York Times. While the book provides a thorough recounting of the events and acquaintance with the principal personalities involved, for me it failed to evoke the “anything goes”, “everything is possible” spirit of those days—maybe you just had to have been there. The summation is useful for correcting false memories of 1968, which ended with both Dubček and de Gaulle still in power; the only major world leader defeated in 1968 was Lyndon Johnson, and he was succeeded by Nixon. A “whatever became of” or “where are they now” section would be a useful addition; such information, when it's given, is scattered all over the text.

One wonders whether, in our increasingly interconnected world, something like 1968 could happen again. Certainly, that's the dream of greying radicals nostalgic for their days of glory and young firebrands regretful for having been born too late. Perhaps better channels of communication and the collapse of monolithic political structures have resulted in change becoming an incremental process which adapts to the evolving public consensus before a mass movement has time to develop. It could simply be that the major battles of “liberation” have all been won, and the next major conflict will be incited by those who wish to rein them in. Or maybe it's just that we're still trying to digest the consequences of 1968 and far from ready for another round.

April 2006 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Cod. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-14-027501-8.
There is nothing particularly glamourous about a codfish. It swims near the bottom of the ocean in cold continental shelf waters with its mouth open, swallowing whatever comes along, including smaller cod. While its white flesh is prized, the cod provides little sport for the angler: once hooked, it simply goes limp and must be hauled from the bottom to the boat. And its rather odd profusion of fins and blotchy colour lacks the elegance of marlin or swordfish or the menace of a shark. But the cod has, since the middle ages, played a part not only in the human diet but also in human history, being linked to the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic, the Basque nautical tradition, long-distance voyages in the age of exploration, commercial transatlantic commerce, the Caribbean slave trade, the U.S. war of independence, the expansion of territorial waters from three to twelve and now 200 miles, conservation and the emerging international governance of the law of the sea, and more.

This delightful piece of reportage brings all of this together, from the biology and ecology of the cod, to the history of its exploitation by fishermen over the centuries, the commerce in cod and the conflicts it engendered, the cultural significance of cod in various societies and the myriad ways they have found to use it, and the shameful overfishing which has depleted what was once thought to be an inexhaustible resource (and should give pause to any environmentalist who believes government regulation is the answer to stewardship). But cod wouldn't have made so much history if people didn't eat them, and the narrative is accompanied by dozens of recipes from around the world and across the centuries (one dates from 1393), including many for parts of the fish other than its esteemed white flesh. Our ancestors could afford to let nothing go to waste, and their cleverness in turning what many today would consider offal into delicacies still cherished by various cultures is admirable. Since codfish has traditionally been sold salted and dried (in which form it keeps almost indefinitely, even in tropical climates, if kept dry, and is almost 80% protein by weight—a key enabler of long ocean voyages before the advent of refrigeration), you'll also want to read the author's work on Salt (February 2005).

September 2008 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Paper. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN 978-0-393-23961-4.
One of the things that makes us human is our use of extrasomatic memory: we invent ways to store and retrieve things outside our own brains. It's as if when the evolutionary drive which caused the brains of our ancestors to grow over time reached its limit, due to the physical constraints of the birth canal, we applied the cleverness of our bulging brains to figure out not only how to record things for ourselves, but to pass them on to other individuals and transmit them through time to our successors.

This urge to leave a mark on our surroundings is deeply-seated and as old as our species. Paintings at the El Castillo site in Spain have been dated to at least 40,800 years before the present. Complex paintings of animals and humans in the Lascaux Caves in France, dated around 17,300 years ago, seem strikingly modern to observers today. As anybody who has observed young children knows, humans do not need to be taught to draw: the challenge is teaching them to draw only where appropriate.

Nobody knows for sure when humans began to speak, but evidence suggests that verbal communication is at least as old and possibly appeared well before the first evidence of drawing. Once speech appeared, it was not only possible to transmit information from one human to another directly but, by memorising stories, poetry, and songs, to create an oral tradition passed on from one generation to the next. No longer what one individual learned in their life need die with them.

Given the human compulsion to communicate, and how long we've been doing it by speaking, drawing, singing, and sculpting, it's curious we only seem to have invented written language around 5000 years ago. (But recall that the archaeological record is incomplete and consists only of objects which survived through the ages. Evidence of early writing is from peoples who wrote on durable material such as stone or clay tablets, or lived in dry climates such as that of Egypt where more fragile media such as papyrus or parchment would be preserved. It is entirely possible writing was invented much earlier by any number of societies who wrote on more perishable surfaces and lived in climates where they would not endure.)

Once writing appeared, it remained the province of a small class of scribes and clerics who would read texts to the common people. Mass literacy did not appear for millennia, and would require a better medium for the written word and a less time-consuming and costly way to reproduce it. It was in China that the solutions to both of these problems would originate.

Legends date Chinese writing from much earlier, but the oldest known writing in China is dated around 3300 years ago, and was inscribed on bones and turtle shells. Already, the Chinese language used six hundred characters, and this number would only increase over time, with a phonetic alphabet never being adopted. The Chinese may not have invented bureaucracy, but as an ancient and largely stable society they became very skilled at it, and consequently produced ever more written records. These writings employed a variety of materials: stone, bamboo, and wood tablets; bronze vessels; and silk. All of these were difficult to produce, expensive, and many required special skills on the part of scribes.

Cellulose is a main component of the cell wall of plants, and forms the structure of many of the more complex members of the plant kingdom. It forms linear polymers which produce strong fibres. The cellulose content of plants varies widely: cotton is 90% cellulose, while wood is around half cellulose, depending on the species of tree. Sometime around A.D. 100, somebody in China (according to legend, a courtier named Cai Lun) discovered that through a process of cooking, hammering, and chopping, the cellulose fibres in material such as discarded cloth, hemp, and tree bark could be made to separate into a thin slurry of fibres suspended in water. If a frame containing a fine screen were dipped into a vat of this material, rocked back and forth in just the right way, then removed, a fine layer of fibres with random orientation would remain on the screen after the water drained away. This sheet could then be removed, pressed, and dried, yielding a strong, flat material composed of intertwined cellulose fibres. Paper had been invented.

Paper was found to be ideal for writing the Chinese language, which was, and is today, usually written with a brush. Since paper could be made from raw materials previously considered waste (rags, old ropes and fishing nets, rice and bamboo straw), water, and a vat and frame which were easily constructed, it was inexpensive and could be produced in quantity. Further, the papermaker could vary the thickness of the paper by adding more or less pulp to the vat, by the technique in dipping the frame, and produce paper with different surface properties by adding “sizing” material such as starch to the mix. In addition to sating the appetite of the imperial administration, paper was adopted as the medium of choice for artists, calligraphers, and makers of fans, lanterns, kites, and other objects.

Many technologies were invented independently by different societies around the world. Paper, however, appears to have been discovered only once in the eastern hemisphere, in China, and then diffused westward along the Silk Road. The civilisations of Mesoamerica such as the Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs, extensively used, prior to the Spanish conquest, what was described as paper, but it is not clear whether this was true paper or a material made from reeds and bark. So thoroughly did the conquistadors obliterate the indigenous civilisations, burning thousands of books, that only three Mayan books and fifteen Aztec documents are known to have survived, and none of these are written on true paper.

Paper arrived in the Near East just as the Islamic civilisation was consolidating after its first wave of conquests. Now faced with administering an empire, the caliphs discovered, like the Chinese before them, that many documents were required and the new innovative writing material met the need. Paper making requires a source of cellulose-rich material and abundant water, neither of which are found in the Arabian peninsula, so the first great Islamic paper mill was founded in Baghdad in A.D. 794, originally employing workers from China. It was the first water-powered paper mill, a design which would dominate paper making until the age of steam. The demand for paper continued to grow, and paper mills were established in Damascus and Cairo, each known for the particular style of paper they produced.

It was the Muslim invaders of Spain who brought paper to Europe, and paper produced by mills they established in the land they named al-Andalus found markets in the territories we now call Italy and France. Many Muslim scholars of the era occupied themselves producing editions of the works of Greek and Roman antiquity, and wrote them on paper. After the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, papermaking spread to Italy, arriving in time for the awakening of intellectual life which would be called the Renaissance and produce large quantities of books, sheet music, maps, and art: most of it on paper. Demand outstripped supply, and paper mills sprung up wherever a source of fibre and running water was available.

Paper provided an inexpensive, durable, and portable means of storing, transmitting, and distributing information of all kinds, but was limited in its audience as long as each copy had to be laboriously made by a scribe or artist (often introducing errors in the process). Once again, it was the Chinese who invented the solution. Motivated by the Buddhist religion, which values making copies of sacred texts, in the 8th century A.D. the first documents were printed in China and Japan. The first items to be printed were single pages, carved into a single wood block for the whole page, then printed onto paper in enormous quantities: tens of thousands in some cases. In the year 868, the first known dated book was printed, a volume of Buddhist prayers called the Diamond Sutra. Published on paper in the form of a scroll five metres long, each illustrated page was printed from a wood block carved with its entire contents. Such a “block book” could be produced in quantity (limited only by wear on the wood block), but the process of carving the wood was laborious, especially since text and images had to be carved as a mirror image of the printed page.

The next breakthrough also originated in China, but had limited impact there due to the nature of the written language. By carving or casting an individual block for each character, it was possible to set any text from a collection of characters, print documents, then reuse the same characters for the next job. Unfortunately, by the time the Chinese began to experiment with printing from movable type in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it took 60,000 different characters to print the everyday language and more than 200,000 for literary works. This made the initial investment in a set of type forbidding. The Koreans began to use movable type cast from metal in the fifteenth century and were so impressed with its flexibility and efficiency that in 1444 a royal decree abolished the use of Chinese characters in favour of a phonetic alphabet called Hangul which is still used today.

It was in Europe that movable type found a burgeoning intellectual climate ripe for its adoption, and whence it came to change the world. Johannes Gutenberg was a goldsmith, originally working with his brother Friele in Mainz, Germany. Fleeing political unrest, the brothers moved to Strasbourg, where around 1440 Johannes began experimenting with movable type for printing. His background as a goldsmith equipped him with the required skills of carving, stamping, and casting metal; indeed, many of the pioneers of movable type in Europe began their careers as goldsmiths. Gutenberg carved letters into hard metal, forming what he called a punch. The punch was used to strike a copper plate, forming an impression called the matrix. Molten lead was then poured into the matrix, producing individual characters of type. Casting letters in a matrix allowed producing as many of each letter as needed to set pages of type, and for replacement of worn type as required. The roman alphabet was ideal for movable type: while the Chinese language required 60,000 or more characters, a complete set of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and punctuation for German came to only around 100 pieces of type. Accounting for duplicates of commonly used letters, Gutenberg's first book, the famous Gutenberg Bible, used a total of 290 pieces of type. Gutenberg also developed a special ink suited for printing with metal type, and adapted a press he acquired from a paper mill to print pages.

Gutenberg was secretive about his processes, likely aware he had competition, which he did. Movable type was one of those inventions which was “in the air”—had Gutenberg not invented and publicised it, his contemporaries working in Haarlem, Bruges, Avignon, and Feltre, all reputed by people of those cities to have gotten there first, doubtless would have. But it was the impact of Gutenberg's Bible, which demonstrated that movable type could produce book-length works of quality comparable to those written by the best scribes, which established the invention in the minds of the public and inspired others to adopt the new technology.

Its adoption was, by the standards of the time, swift. An estimated eight million books were printed and sold in Europe in the second half of the fifteenth century—more books than Europe had produced in all of history before that time. Itinerant artisans would take their type punches from city to city, earning money by setting up locals in the printing business, then moving on.

In early sixteenth century Germany, the printing revolution sparked a Reformation. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, completed his German translation of the Bible in 1534 (he had earlier published a translation of the New Testament in 1522). This was the first widely-available translation of the Bible into a spoken language, and reinforced the Reformation idea that the Bible was directly accessible to all, without need for interpretation by clergy. Beginning with his original Ninety-five Theses, Luther authored thirty publications, which it is estimated sold 300,000 copies (in a territory of around 14 million German speakers). Around a third of all publications in Germany in the era were related to the Reformation.

This was a new media revolution. While the incumbent Church reacted at the speed of sermons read occasionally to congregations, the Reformation produced a flood of tracts, posters, books, and pamphlets written in vernacular German and aimed directly at an increasingly literate population. Luther's pamphlets became known as Flugschriften: “quick writing”. One such document, written in 1520, sold 4000 copies in three weeks and 50,000 in two years. Whatever the merits of the contending doctrines, the Reformation had fully embraced and employed the new communication technology to speak directly to the people. In modern terms, you might say the Reformation was the “killer app” for movable type printing.

Paper and printing with movable type were the communication and information storage technologies the Renaissance needed to express and distribute the work of thinkers and writers across a continent, who were now able to read and comment on each other's work and contribute to a culture that knew no borders. Interestingly, the technology of paper making was essentially unchanged from that of China a millennium and a half earlier, and printing with movable type hardly different from that invented by Gutenberg. Both would remain largely the same until the industrial revolution. What changed was an explosion in the volume of printed material and, with increasing literacy among the general public, the audience and market for it. In the eighteenth century a new innovation, the daily newspaper, appeared. Between 1712 and 1757, the circulation of newspapers in Britain grew eightfold. By 1760, newspaper circulation in Britain was 9 million, and would increase to 24 million by 1811.

All of this printing required ever increasing quantities of paper, and most paper in the West was produced from rags. Although the population was growing, their thirst for printed material expanded much quicker, and people, however fastidious, produce only so many rags. Paper shortages became so acute that newspapers limited their size based on the availability and cost of paper. There were even cases of scavengers taking clothes from the dead on battlefields to sell to paper mills making newsprint used to report the conflict. Paper mills resorted to doggerel to exhort the public to save rags:

The scraps, which you reject, unfit
To clothe the tenant of a hovel,
May shine in sentiment and wit,
And help make a charming novel…

René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, a French polymath who published in numerous fields of science, observed in 1719 that wasps made their nests from what amounted to paper they produced directly from wood. If humans could replicate this vespidian technology, the forests of Europe and North America could provide an essentially unlimited and renewable source of raw material for paper. This idea was to lie fallow for more than a century. Some experimenters produced small amounts of paper from wood through various processes, but it was not until 1850 that paper was manufactured from wood in commercial quantities in Germany, and 1863 that the first wood-based paper mill began operations in America.

Wood is about half cellulose, while the fibres in rags run up to 90% cellulose. The other major component of wood is lignin, a cross-linked polymer which gives it its strength and is useless for paper making. In the 1860s a process was invented where wood, first mechanically cut into small chips, was chemically treated to break down the fibrous structure in a device called a “digester”. This produced a pulp suitable for paper making, and allowed a dramatic expansion in the volume of paper produced. But the original wood-based paper still contained lignin, which turns brown over time. While this was acceptable for newspapers, it was undesirable for books and archival documents, for which rag paper remained preferred. In 1879, a German chemist invented a process to separate lignin from cellulose in wood pulp, which allowed producing paper that did not brown with age.

The processes used to make paper from wood involved soaking the wood pulp in acid to break down the fibres. Some of this acid remained in the paper, and many books printed on such paper between 1840 and 1970 are now in the process of slowly disintegrating as the acid eats away at the paper. Only around 1970 was it found that an alkali solution works just as well when processing the pulp, and since then acid-free paper has become the norm for book publishing.

Most paper is produced from wood today, and on an enormous, industrial scale. A single paper mill in China, not the largest, produces 600,000 tonnes of paper per year. And yet, for all of the mechanisation, that paper is made by the same process as the first sheet of paper produced in China: by reducing material to cellulose fibres, mixing them with water, extracting a sheet (now a continuous roll) with a screen, then pressing and drying it to produce the final product.

Paper and printing is one of those technologies which is so simple, based upon readily-available materials, and potentially revolutionary that it inspires “what if” speculation. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans each had everything they needed—raw materials, skills, and a suitable written language—so that a Connecticut Yankee-like time traveller could have explained to artisans already working with wood and metal how to make paper, cast movable type, and set up a printing press in a matter of days. How would history have differed had one of those societies unleashed the power of the printed word?

December 2016 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-14-200161-9.
You may think this a dry topic, but the history of salt is a microcosm of the history of human civilisation. Carnivorous animals and human tribes of hunters get all the salt they need from the meat they eat. But as soon as humans adopted a sedentary agricultural lifestyle and domesticated animals, they and their livestock had an urgent need for salt—a cow requires ten times as much salt as a human. The collection and production of salt was a prerequisite for human settlements and, as an essential commodity required by every individual, the first to be taxed and regulated by that chronic affliction of civilisation, government. Salt taxes supported the Chinese empire for almost two millennia, the Viennese and Genoan trading empires and the Hanseatic League, precipitated the French Revolution and India's struggle for independence from the British empire. Salt was a strategic commodity in the Roman Empire: most Roman cities were built near saltworks, and the words “salary” and “soldier” are both derived from the Latin word for salt. This and much more is covered in this fascinating look at human civilisation through the crystals of a tasty and essential inorganic compound composed of two poisonous elements. Recipes for salty specialities of cultures around the world and across the centuries are included, along with recommendations for surviving that “surprisingly pleasant” Swedish speciality surströmming (p. 139): “The only remaining problem is how to get the smell out of the house…”.

February 2005 Permalink