Worth its salt
Salt: A World History
by Mark Kurlansky
Read 23 August–1 September 2013
Salt is so readily available in today’s world that it’s easy to take for granted. So Mark Kurlansky’s in-depth look at the history of salt was certainly eye-opening. I never realized, for example, that controlling salt production was part of the Union strategy during the U.S. Civil War.
Much of the book is quite interesting. But it’s too long; it feels like there’s about 150 pages of unnecessary material in there. While the recipes included are intriguing, I think they would have been better placed in an appendix rather than included in the book’s main text. The author clearly had a lot of material left over from his previous book about cod, because there’s a lot about cod and fish in this one. (I’m not a fish eater, so that doesn’t appeal to me. But the excessive discussions about fish are probably not the most interesting even to fish connoisseurs.) And the author seems to go out of his way not to appear Eurocentric. Yes, I know that China has been a great, advanced civilization for millennia, but I felt like I was being reminded of that on every other page, with far too much focus on how Eastern and Western civilization compare.
A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
by Caroline Moorehead
Read 18–27 September 2013
One of the best and one of the worst books I have ever read. The women whose story Caroline Moorehead tells are incredible. Their courage, their tenacity, and their compassion certainly caused me to reexamine my own life and attributes and commit to living a little better. There are few words to describe my admiration for these women and my speechlessness at everything they endured.
But the description of what these women saw and experienced at Auschwitz and elsewhere on their journey is raw. In spite of everything I’ve heard and seen about the Holocaust, this book displays the depravity of the Nazis and those who ran the concentration camps on a whole new level. There were times I had to put the book down and shed a few tears over what I was reading. It is difficult to take in, and impossible to understand. But I reminded myself that these women fought to live so that they could tell the world what they saw so that it would never happen again. And such raw, uncompromising detail allowed me to empathize with the prisoners and victims of the concentration camps in a way that I hadn’t felt before.
My only gripe with the author is that several times she refers to the heroines’ “abilities as women”—their ability to care and have compassion for one another, and that these abilities gave them a survival advantage over the men in the camps. Which I have no doubt of. But I would argue that such abilities are not inherent to one gender over another but are rather part of the cultural construct that would be unsurprising to find in Europe’s ultraconservative years of the early 20th century.
The story behind the words we read
Just My Type: A Book about Fonts
by Simon Garfield
Read 29 September–10 October 2013
We get so accustomed to seeing letters and text and words around us that it almost seems natural, as though the entire alphabet—and the way we write it—were delivered as a polished finished product from some unknown, supernatural source. But the fact is that alphabets and language and the typefaces and printing methods we use to write them are human inventions, meaning someone, somewhere along the line back in time, had to figure out how to do all that stuff.
That’s what this book is about. Sure, there’s a lot about fonts, and it was comforting to learn that other people are even more geeky and obsessed about fonts than I am. Simon Garfield tells their stories, but he also teases out fascinating histories about the people and things behind fonts as we know them today. He reminisces about the John Bull printing set, and he relates the time the French Haute autorité pour la diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sur Internet used France Telecom’s proprietary typeface in announcing a new campaign to protect intellectual property rights—including those of typographers. And after reading about Eric Gill, a typographer who worked in Britain in the early 20th century, I will never be able to look at Gill Sans the same way again. But you’ll just have to read the book to find out why.
It’s a little dull at times—it is, after all, a book about fonts. But you don’t have to be a typophile to gain a little more appreciation for the type-filled world around us.
One thought on “Recent reads & reviews”