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Tuesday, August 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Bush's summer book list: salt, a czar and flu

Los Angeles Times

CRAWFORD, Texas — Gas prices are climbing, motorists are fuming, and President Bush is at his ranch with a book about the history of salt.

There could be a connection.

According to the White House, one of three books Bush chose to read on his five-week vacation is "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky, who chronicled the rise and fall of what once was considered the world's most strategic commodity.

The other two books he reportedly brought with him to Crawford are "Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar" by Edvard Radzinsky and "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History" by John Barry.

Bush, a former oil-company chief, has not said why he picked Kurlansky's 484-page saga. "The president enjoys reading and learning about history," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

But the analogies between salt and oil are striking.

For most of recorded history, salt was synonymous with wealth. It established trade routes and cities. Adventurers searched for it. Merchants hoarded it. Governments taxed it. Nations went to war over it.

Bush's reading list

Books Bush chose to read on his five-week vacation:

"Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky

"Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar" by Edvard Radzinsky

"The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History" by John Barry

Source: White House

Then, in the early 20th century, salt became ubiquitous. Refrigeration reduced its value as a preservative, and geological advances revealed its global abundance.

"It seems very silly now, all of the struggles for salt," Kurlansky said. "It's quite probable that some day, people will read about our struggles for oil and have the same reaction."

Barry, author of "The Great Influenza," said the Bush administration has sought his advice on the potential for another pandemic like the 1918 outbreak that claimed millions of lives worldwide. A central theme of Barry's book is that the 1918 outbreak was exacerbated in the United States by the government's attempts to downplay its significance, partly to avoid undermining the war effort.

The book about Alexander II may have special relevance to Bush.

Alexander II, who ruled Russia from 1855 to 1881, was known as the "Czar Liberator" because he freed 23 million Russian slaves in 1861, two years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But his governmental reforms ultimately were his undoing. On the right, they provoked a conservative backlash. On the left, they contributed to a radical political movement that used violence to accomplish its aims, including a wave of murders and bombings.

When he decided to halt the reform process, the violence intensified. Alexander II became, in effect, the first world leader to declare a war on terrorism.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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