For the sake of salt, Rome created a system of remuneration (from which we get the word "salary"), nomads domesticated the camel, the Low Countries revolted against their Spanish oppressors, and Gandhi marched against the tyranny of the British. Through the ages, salt has conferred status, preserved foods, and mingled in the blood, sweat, and tears of humanity. Today, chefs of haute cuisine covet it in its most exotic forms—underground salt deposits, Hawaiian black lava salt, glittery African crystals, and pink Peruvian salt from the sea carried in bricks on the backs of llamas.
From proverbs to technical arguments, from anecdotes to examples of folklore, chemist and philosopher Pierre Laszlo takes us through the kingdom of "white gold." With "enthusiasm and freshness" (Le Monde) he mixes literary analysis, history, anthropology, biology, physics, economics, art history, political science, chemistry, ethnology, and linguistics to create a full body of knowledge about the everyday substance that rocked the world and brings zest to the ordinary. Laszlo explains the history behind Morton Salt's slogan "When it rains, it pours!" and looks into the plight of the salt miner, as well as spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance. Salt is a tour de force about a chemical compound that is one of the very foundations of civilization.
If this book's organization gracefully accommodated the breadth of its subjects, it would be a small masterpiece. Unfortunately, a scattershot structure and an awkward translation mar this project, which includes portions that did not appear in the original French edition. Clearly extremely learned, Laszlo writes knowledgeably about everything from a Japanese adage meaning "to salt the greens" to the history of Venetian salt production. These brief sections are linked only in the most cursory way, however, and his tangents frequently carry him far afield, as when he moves from discussing the gabelle, or French salt tax, to addressing taxation in general. The fact that salt is used to create chlorine and can be transformed into PVC or vinyl leads to a rumination on Howard Johnson's motel-restaurants and his wonder at air-conditioning when he moved stateside in the 1960s. He prefaces each chapter of this appealing but frustrating work with a preview of the coming material rather than an effective introduction. While Laszlo's style is rambling and conversational, the translation is jarringly formal, with such clunky language as "this astute way of combining salt preservation with the beginnings of a digestion process using proteolytic enzymes was a revolutionary technique." Much of Laszlo's material is intriguing, and his literacy about everything from chemistry to philosophy provides a helpful perspective on this basic element, but ultimately these choppy pieces never cohere.
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