Books | Tap dance

A review of Drinking Water: A History, by James Salzman.
Written by Jenna Marotta, Columnist (Books)

We rang. Drink it.

"New grin, art kid?"

Read, knit, wring.

James Salzman, a former Fulbright scholar who earned unprecedented honors at Harvard before becoming a professor of law and environmental policy at Duke University, has built himself a flawless résumé. Not to be outdone, I built a few anagrams from the name of his latest book, Drinking Water: A History(Overlook Duckworth, $27.95). True, I only rearranged the first half of the title; I was aiming for Raymond Carvers's tone and minimalism.

Water must usually be paired with something to make it exciting: a Super Soaker, a hovercraft, a bong. Salzman spent seven years on this project, a non-linear crisscross of Bible excerpts, doomed expeditions, ancient infrastructures, global customs, philosophical ruminations, corporate takeovers, political glad-handing, reversals of snobbery and modern oblivion, where "unsafe drinking water is the single largest killer in the world."

When your potential audience is comprised of people who require water to live (everyone) and people who can read and write (83.7 percent of us who are age 15 or older, worldwide), Salzman's enunciation and physicality seep through the page. We relate as he clasps his hands and smiles between heavy breaths. He has the ability to tone down the academic thunder while bracing us -- genially -- for an assault of terrifying facts. Drinking Water makes fine plane reading, although I wouldn't advise a quick skim in between the closing credits of A Civil Action and the opening sequence of Erin Brockovich.

There are two reactions to the news that all water contains traces of mineralized arsenic, fracking can lead to "methane faucet fires" (YouTubed proof), and terrorists could launch "major attacks on American water supplies." You might unleash a Class A conniption and call everyone you know, taking some satisfaction in delivering this warning.

Or you think...meh. Everyday we're told of a new thing that might kill us: artificial sweetener, cellphones, oversleeping, under-sleeping, lava lamps, grapefruit, Segways, x-rays, bottle caps (R.I.P. Tennessee Williams, Pultizer Prize-winning playwright).

Do scratch the end of the Mayan calendar off the list, you fatalists. Now watch Salzman's trailer for Drinking Water -- "In a sense, I'm kind of sad it's over." -- and tell me he's living in fear.

Here's the big secret (if you don't want to go on a 258-page, suspense-induced liquid fast, plus an obligatory preface, intro, afterward, end notes and index): take the tap water. Drink it up! "We seem to have a particular blind spot when it comes to bottled water," Salzman writes. "The nutritional label on a bottle of water suggests the complete lack of anything unhealthy...what we don't see, however, is what we ought to care about and information that, in fact, is mandated for public water sources -- the levels of chlorine, coliform bacteria, trihalomethanes, nitrates, turbidity, et cetera." (Italics mine.)

To reiterate: "Compared to tap water, bottled water is subject to weaker regulations, much less frequent monitoring, largely meaningless labeling, and broad exemptions." Added buzzkill: Perrier, Poland Spring and San Pellegrino are Nestlé; Dasani is Coke; Aquafina is Pepsi.

Say I had Professor Salzman on speed dial (if all cellphones weren't speed dialers). I'd acknowledge the weak preface and the repetitions before giving him grief for starting chapter one with, "In the winter of 1512, Juan Ponce de Leónhad it all."

Still, I'd reassure him that, somehow, his nonstop rhetorical questions didn't bother me, even if they were more plentiful then those in The New York Times review of Guy Fieri's restaurant. As I read, the same questions pleaded for answers (in both the book and the review).

Then I'd compliment Salzman on using only one horrible aquatic pun in the entire text, especially since he heard plenty from family, friends and collaborators. Also, I'm awestruck that he was able to locate a trio of aptronyms (names that perfectly fit their owners): Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst; Alice Waters, "high priestess of the local food movement," who banned bottled water from the menu of her restaurant, Chez Panisse; and Salzman himself, who advocates desalinization as a way to turn ocean water drinkable.

Refreshingly, Salzman gives a few recommendations to our world water epidemic, although their feasibility is iffy and he clarifies that it's our government's duty to act -- or else. We could push icebergs towards the Equator. Harvesting rainwater has never been seriously pursued. Raising water taxes would help replace Civil War-era pipes (in the U.S., a major pipeline bursts every two minutes).

And then there's this option: "In May 2009, astronauts aboard the International Space Station first drank water recycled from their own urine...The American astronaut Michael Barratt claimed, 'the taste is great...We're going to be drinking yesterday's coffee frequently up here, and happy to do it.'"

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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