Monday, December 3, 2012

Not recommended

Sometimes we come across books that just aren't our style. These two books are well researched and contain interesting information, but for me they fell flat, one for lack of an overarching argument, the other for its dogmatism. They also reminded me how important engaging writing is for non-fiction works. If you’re fascinated by either topic, these might be interesting books for you. But I think they could have used an additional edit to highlight the good information they offer in a more interesting and approachable or organized manner.

Mark Kulansky’s Salt: A World History includes encyclopedic detail on different cultures’ and eras’ usage of salt, as promised by the title. Unfortunately, it lacks an overall narrative other than the idea that salt is indeed important and regularly veers off for sections that seem only tangentially related to the overall topic. Since the information doesn’t come together to support an overall argument or theme, I found it difficult to remember many of the details presented. I read the first third, then a couple months later made it to halfway though. I enjoyed the chapter on India since it seemed to track a story arc better, then had trouble finding the point of the subsequent chapters. I do plan to finish the book, at some point...perhaps.

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan, was more engaging than Salt. It tells the story of early conservation efforts, the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service, and battles between different land users in the Rocky Mountain West. The devastating fire season of 1910 challenged the Forest Service’s claim to be able to control wildfires, but also gave the rangers a chance to demonstrate their skills and value to their communities. Egan spent an inordinate amount of time describing the deaths by burning and smoke inhalation of a variety of groups and individuals trapped in the mountains during the main fire blowup. One or two of these descriptions would have sufficed, if combined with a sense of scale of the injured and deceased. Instead, the gruesome descriptions go on for a good portion of the book. Egan’s moral criticism of western workers in boomtowns as being lazy, alcoholic, and lecherous, particularly in comparison with his description of the noble forest rangers seemed heavy-handed and unnecessary. Egan’s research could make the case for the value of the Forest Service without the good vs. evil dynamic he uses to characterize many of the key players and sides in the disputes. He manages a bit more nuance when describing Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt’s Forest Service chief, and President Taft, but his often repetitive descriptions of even these figures could have used some editing. Parallels between the era’s social conflicts and differences of opinion regarding the environment and today add interest and strength to the book. 

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