Something Fishy

The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town
Mark Kurlanksy

I can remember looking at the books my mother kept locked in an old oak book case at the foot of the basement stairs and asking her why so many had the same author. Her reply was that when she liked an author she wanted to read everything by them. Which, I think, explains both Literature majors and the way the publishing industry works.

Enter Exhibit A.  I once read an interview with Bill Bryson in which he talked about how his editors tried to dissuade him from his plan to write about the English language. Safire and McNeil do that, they said, you’re a travel writer.

Well if Bryson is a travel writer then Mark Kurlansky is the writer who owns the triangle trade. You remember the triangle trade from grade school social studies, don’t you? New England merchant princes and ship owners became fat cats by transporting raw materials, finished goods and slaves in a rough triangle formed by England, the West Coast of Africa and the East Coast of North America. Kurlansky spends a lot of time in those same waters.

This isn’t a complaint, mind you, just an observation. Like Simon Winchester, Kurlansky’s primary turf is the microhistory–a book that looks at one subject in great detail. In formal history there’s a term for this–monograph. But monographs are the things that make people hate history–usually dry as unbuttered toast and full of charts, graphs, document excerpts and footnotes. Microhistory is just popular history writ small and, properly done, still tells a good story.

There’s no doubt Kurlansky has nailed the story-telling part. Originally a reporter he’s especially good, as this volume demonstrates, in obtaining the local viewpoint. He’s shown this talent before in books on (these are the ones I’ve read, not all of them) the Caribbean, Salt, Cod and the Basques. As a nice bonus, almost everything I’ve read by him also contains recipes and because I’m supposed to be on cookbook waivers I feel like I’m getting away with something.

Consider that above list of subjects, though, and you’ll note that they all fit inside the triangle mentioned earlier. The linkages are so obvious it’s as though you’ve attended an editor’s conference that was really a meeting of marketing folks looking for the next profitable line extension. Start with the Caribbean and move along: Turks and Caicos was a major provider of salt used to preserve  cod which was fished by the Basques who ate a lot of salt cod and were early fishers of the banks off Gloucester.

It’s that trail that’s a problem. As a look at contemporary Gloucester and a sketch of the town’s history the book is an enjoyable read. But there’s a substantial chunk (at least 20%) that goes right back to the Bay of Biscay and the Grand Banks in order to illustrate the risk to the traditional Atlantic fisheries. Somehow I feel as though I’ve read this all before–probably more than once. And that’s sad because any book about fishing is supposed to be a respite for me.

One last note about today’s editorial process. The microhistory genre likes to use the trappings of scholarship such as bibliographies and footnotes. In large part I think this is meant to reassure the reader and suggest the present volume is weightier than it is.

I’d blame current practice but the book contains a reproduction of Champlain’s orignal map of Gloucester Harbor from the early 1600’s. What’s reproduced is a spread of the map with added text, drawn from an earlier volume. The text below the map indicates the soundings probably indicate the harbor’s depth in meters.

Champlain visited Gloucester around 1603. The metric system was adopted in 1791. Whatever the measure, it was not meters and the editorial work was sloppy not once but twice. Which is why all the footnotes and listings in the world will never make books like this a reliable source of anything but reading pleasure.

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