Tuesday, December 12, 2006


NON-VIOLENCE - The History of a Dangerous Idea -
Mark Kurlansky
Jonathan Cape NZ$45

This morning (Tuesday 12 December) I reviewed this title on National Radio with Kathryn Ryan. Many do not get to hear these radio reviews so for you here are some notes on the book.

First off let me say I am a huge admirer of Kurlansky and have read everything he has had published which runs to two books for children, two works of fiction, one collection of food writing edited by him, and eight works of non-fiction .
He was in New Zealand last year for the Christchurch Readers and Writers Festival but sadly I was away at that time and didn't get to meet him. He is on my list of people with whom I would most like to have dinner!

He is often referred to as a micro-historian which I guess is to say that he writes micro-histories.
Among his titles that fit this description are his two biggest selling titles, "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World", and "Salt: A World History".
Earlier this year I reviewed on National Radio his previous title, "The Big Oyster: New York in the World, A Molecular History" and I remember saying on air that this book couldn't fail with me because it was about one of my most favourite cities along with my most favourite food delicacy.

Kurlansky was for many years a highly acclaimed journalist writing for such newspapers as The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune.

About 15 years ago he gave away his journalism for a full-time career as a writer and his 13 books are testament to his focus and dedication to his work.

One might call Non-Violence a micro book, that is if you were referring to its format but you certainly couldn't use that phrase to describe the subject matter.

He takes a look at pacifism in world history and shows how modern ideas such as the EU and UN came out of non-violence movements.
He shows how all the major religions of the world- Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Bhuddism and of course especailly the Mennonites and Quakers, all have passages in their writings and beliefs rejecting warfare as immoral.

He discusses these along with the teachings of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and many others including the Maori Chief Te Whiti who led the peace movement at Parihaka in the 1860's and 70's. Te Whiti also has the honour of being the source of the quote at the head of chapter 5.
Apparently when Kurlansky was in New Zealand someone told him about Parihaka so when his speaking commitments were over he buried himself in the Auckland War Memorial Museum Library for several days researching the subject and here is the result.

I love this sentence from the beginning of his piece on Te Whiti when describing this " remote corner of the far-flung British Empire" - The few islands beyond Australia are not near anyone else nor on the way to anywhere. I think we Kiwis can all agree with that!

Although he doesn't actually come out and say it it is nevertheless pretty clear that Kurlansky is a pacifist himself.

At the end of the book he gives us his "25 Lessons" that he considers we have learned
from the history of non-violence. Years ago I was involved with coaching secondary school debating teams both in Hawkes Bay and in Auckland and how I wished I had had his list of 25 lessons back then because each one of them would make a great debating subject or even a good discussion subject in history or philosophy classes.

Some examples:

Somewhere behind every war ther are always a few founding lies.

People who go to war start to resemble their enemy.

Violence is a virus that infects and takes over.


There is also an extensive bibliography and comprehensive index, both musts in a serious work of non-fiction.

I should also mention that the book has a foreword from the contemporary "Father" of peace and non-violence, the Dalai Lama, impressive stuff.

As stated at the outset I am a great admirer of Kurlansky's books and have enjoyed enormously everyone of his previous titles. With this latest title, while I still admire his writing style and arguement, I think to really get the most from it you would need to be more interested than I am in US history and foreign policy and/or the subjects of non-violence and pacifism.

5 comments:

Ted said...

Thanks for this. I can't listen to National Radio during the day when I'm at work but I go to their website in the evening and listen to the interviews/reviews etc that have been on that day.
So I got to hear you that way.
I lke Kurlansky too, manages to make ordinary stuff amazingly interesting e.g.his books on Cod and Salt.

Anonymous said...

Ted is right. I often listen to stuff I've missed on National Radio
while I'm at the office.
That Radion NZ website is an excellent one which I recommend to any of their listeners who have't yet seen/listened to it. You can also get National Radio and Concert FM live on it through your computer.

Sydney fan said...

He's bloody good Kurlansky, I've read everything he has written apart from this two kids books, did they ever some to Australia (where I live) or NZ?.
Who published them?
I found this latest book perhaps the most important thing he has written. Such an important issue today, I guess it has always been an important issue,and he really goes out to bat for it.
Go Mark!
You know, his other books were entertaining but Non Violence is seriously thought provoking.

Yank in South Pacific said...

I've got the two children's books he wrote. I doubt they made it to Aust or NZ. In the US Putnam published The Cod's Tale and University of Nevada Press published The Girl Who Swam to Euskadi. They were both, its fair to say, spin offs from his adult books on Cod and The Basque people.

Amy at Woza Books said...

This is great stuff. It sounds like he is in much the same vein as UC-Berkeley Professor Michael Nagler, who wrote "Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future" (for more info go to the Metta Center website--you can even listen to his classes audiostreamed at UC-Berkeley if you follow the links).
I am trying to get the word out about my new children’s fantasy adventure “The Call to Shakabaz,” which teaches young people the fundamental principles of nonviolence as practiced by Dr. King and Gandhi and is a rollicking good read to boot. This book is exceptionally different because it does not depend on a gory violent battle scene for the climax. Instead it demonstrates a peaceful resolution to conflict. In addition, all the characters in the book are Black. There are very few books for children in this genre with all Black characters. The book will be officially “launched” on January 15, 2007, in honor of Dr. King’s birthday, but copies are already in print and are selling like hotcakes in my little part of the world. Children, parents, teachers, and librarians are reading this book and loving it (Bob Spear at “Heartland Reviews” identified the book as a recommended title for reluctant readers because you can’t put it down). Please help me get the word out! Visit my website at www.wozabooks.com.
This book is a great way to introduce children and teens to new perspectives on the uselessness of war and the power of peaceful conflict resolution.
Amy