Reviewing Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

I have to admit that reading about the history of cod probably isn’t going to make it high on your list of priorities for a quiet night in. I admit I was skeptical myself, but Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, takes an interesting idea an.

The book tracks the history and importance of cod from the time of the Vikings through to modern day overfishing. It keeps this niche history interesting via heavy use of anecdotes, sometimes fascinating anthropological observations and speculations, and recipes from around the world.

Between each chapter is a traditional recipe for cod, along with a small historical ethnographic detail about the recipe. Not being much of a cook myself I skipped the recipe parts, but I always found the background to the recipes interesting.

In fact it is always in the anecdotes that this book shines.

Mark Kurlansky has specialised recently in writing these niche topic-focused histories. Having read Cod, I am now reading Salt, which is about exactly what you would expect, and have read his Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. All have so far been interesting, and they appeal to my interest in niche history, and the importance of everyday ideas and things.

However, Cod falls down in the same place as the others – it’s big on anecdote, but weak on referenced historical details. Some speculation is necessary to spice up the history of cod – and you can’t talk about fish without tall tales of the briny deeps – but any book about history should at least give me confidence that it is accurate. Early on there are speculative claims made about the Basque discovery of Newfoundland, the  – all might be accurate, but the book barely attempts to demonstrate their veracity.

Sometimes the things it expects you to visualise stretched my imagination too much. I cannot accurately picture in my mind the filleting or the relative sizes that the book asks you to. But perhaps that is just a failure of my own imagination.

Cod is a book to read if you – like me – enjoy some niche historical interest and a strong narrative-led history. It’s not a book to read if you are looking for the definite factual guide on cod. But then, the success of this book is that it made me enjoy reading about something I wouldn’t have been looking for.