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Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

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In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world's most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein's empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa's Cotton gives us an intimate loo In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world's most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein's empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa's Cotton gives us an intimate look at the plant that fooled Columbus into thinking he'd reached India, that helped start the Industrial Revolution as well as the American Civil War, and that made at least one bug--the boll weevil--world famous. A sweeping chronicle of ingenuity, greed, conflict, and opportunism, Cotton offers "a barrage of fascinating information" (Los Angeles Times).


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In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world's most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein's empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa's Cotton gives us an intimate loo In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world's most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein's empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa's Cotton gives us an intimate look at the plant that fooled Columbus into thinking he'd reached India, that helped start the Industrial Revolution as well as the American Civil War, and that made at least one bug--the boll weevil--world famous. A sweeping chronicle of ingenuity, greed, conflict, and opportunism, Cotton offers "a barrage of fascinating information" (Los Angeles Times).

30 review for Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Awful. Poorly researched, a Babel Tower of author's assumptions metamorphosed in theorems, claims without support by rigorous research and arbitrary statements that confuse any honest reader. I was lucky I did not have to pay for this book, somebody was discarding it, so I thought it would be cool to read a "biography of cotton" for free. Wrong - I got what I paid for, then paid with my wasted time. Let's start with the end - what this book is not. The author writes in "Acknowledgements": "Tracin Awful. Poorly researched, a Babel Tower of author's assumptions metamorphosed in theorems, claims without support by rigorous research and arbitrary statements that confuse any honest reader. I was lucky I did not have to pay for this book, somebody was discarding it, so I thought it would be cool to read a "biography of cotton" for free. Wrong - I got what I paid for, then paid with my wasted time. Let's start with the end - what this book is not. The author writes in "Acknowledgements": "Tracing the journey of cotton over 6,000 years of human history ..." HUH? This thing is not nearly what the author pretends it is. This hoola boola about writing a monography (BIOGRAPHY OF COTTON??? phew ...) of the plant, this is absolute nonsense. The author might have tried to pretend that he wrote a story of the AMERICAN cotton ... but that too would fail the test, since the whole effort is so uneven and trying. There is extremely little in terms of history of the cotton in ancient times and/or in modern times outside USA. The feeble effort is so questionable, in my mind, I had to interrupt myself several times to go do research on my own, afraid that I am going to be left over with incorrect, incomplete or missing info on the subject. That worked for a while, till I got tired (after all, I am not going to write a book on correcting this guy here). I was left with the distinct feeling that the author abused Wikipedia to write this (aside from his tennis partners). He might think in his euphoria that he wrote a masterpiece. To me, it is garbage. The one star is a compliment. My advice to anyone else: Search the libraries, put forth some effort, there must be better encyclopedic books on cotton out there. Or else, end up like me, reading with one eye and searching for accurate info with the other.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Anthony

    So I told this girl I was trying to get to go out with me that I was reading this book. She told me it sounded boring. Maybe that's why she hasn't called me in a few days. It does sound pretty boring, and at first I was having trouble getting into it, but it's actually pretty interesting. Cotton has a ton of drama associated with it - from industrial espionage to child labor to slavery to genetic engineering to trade policies and their effect on third-world citizens. Cotton does a good job of out So I told this girl I was trying to get to go out with me that I was reading this book. She told me it sounded boring. Maybe that's why she hasn't called me in a few days. It does sound pretty boring, and at first I was having trouble getting into it, but it's actually pretty interesting. Cotton has a ton of drama associated with it - from industrial espionage to child labor to slavery to genetic engineering to trade policies and their effect on third-world citizens. Cotton does a good job of outlining these debates, presenting both sides, and making you think about a plant that you use every day but seldom think about.

  3. 5 out of 5

    David Bates

    This book is well written and aimed at a general audience. The author covers the (vast) ground of the subject by combining significant episodes in the shifting production and use of cotton over the last few centuries with biographical sketches - inventors, factory owners, mill girls etc. The strategy is a good one in that it grounds an economic story in human lives, but it makes the author's treatment of some of the subjects perhaps less agile than might be wished. Chapters tend to lean heavily This book is well written and aimed at a general audience. The author covers the (vast) ground of the subject by combining significant episodes in the shifting production and use of cotton over the last few centuries with biographical sketches - inventors, factory owners, mill girls etc. The strategy is a good one in that it grounds an economic story in human lives, but it makes the author's treatment of some of the subjects perhaps less agile than might be wished. Chapters tend to lean heavily on one or two sources - a diary, a set of court papers etc. - to provide the enlivening human element. Some times a little too much weight is placed on the historical importance of the individuals involved. The myth of the Eli Whitney's pivotal role in world history strides pretty boldly across the relevant chapter for instance. All in all not bad though.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Becky Snow

    This is not a good book. It barely talks about the biological properties or cultivation of the plant, it's a biography of cotton manufacture, and is most definitely a crummy homage to the author's hometown, Lowell, MA. The writing style is really eye-rolling, I had a lot of trouble forging my way through it for most of the book. This guy writes like a 17 year old in creative writing class, it's over the top in many ways. The editing is horrible too, there are many meandering paragraphs, and at o This is not a good book. It barely talks about the biological properties or cultivation of the plant, it's a biography of cotton manufacture, and is most definitely a crummy homage to the author's hometown, Lowell, MA. The writing style is really eye-rolling, I had a lot of trouble forging my way through it for most of the book. This guy writes like a 17 year old in creative writing class, it's over the top in many ways. The editing is horrible too, there are many meandering paragraphs, and at one point, Yafa says "cotton requires heat, warmth, and moisture." That sentence alone made me grumble out loud. This is a terrible book. This whole book pulls cotton way out of context and I was unhappy reading it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen McRae

    I enjoyed this read although there were some chapters in the book that were more interesting The chapter on jeans and denin and their manufacture to the rise of the clothing chain was interestingand showed that nothing happens in a vacuum. The movie industry and the popularity of westerns gave this industry a sexiness that has carried on thru decades.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Leigh

    Written like a longform piece of literary journalism, the writing style tended to carry an air of smugness to it that I found very unenjoyable. Ultimately, the book felt like a chore to read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Pam Porter

    Excellent history of cotton and how it shaped our country.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Evan

    I wrote a lengthy review of this book, and then accidentally backed my browser up and lost it. Cotton is a worthy addition to the list of "Commoditographs" - histories of single items. It does a great job of putting into context economic upheaval from British colonial India, to the mills of Manchester, to Lowell, MA, to the Norma Rae-era textile mills in the US South, and finally, to the heated conflicts surrounding the global cotton market (and manipulation of same). The strongest chapters are n I wrote a lengthy review of this book, and then accidentally backed my browser up and lost it. Cotton is a worthy addition to the list of "Commoditographs" - histories of single items. It does a great job of putting into context economic upheaval from British colonial India, to the mills of Manchester, to Lowell, MA, to the Norma Rae-era textile mills in the US South, and finally, to the heated conflicts surrounding the global cotton market (and manipulation of same). The strongest chapters are near the end, when Yafa gets into current events and really convinces the reader of cotton's (the plant, not the book) impact in our daily lives, and especially our politics and international relations. The chapter on American biotech usage at home and abroad is excellent (see also: The World According to Monsanto, Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer-And What You Can Do About It, and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals). The last chapter, despite the bleak undertones, has a note of optimism, as Yafa chooses a genuinely progressive (open-options, open-future) approach in response to what he rightly pegs as Big Cotton's woe-is-me, sky-is-falling, subsidize-us-or-we-all-die approach to business. Civilizations rise and fall, and the essential point here is that the more you study history, the less the idea of American Exceptionalism holds much water, and then options for making a better future seem to present themselves. (If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails.) The deciding factor between three and four stars came from what other reviewers note as Yafa's "wry style." The occasional first-person asides (think a restrained Gonzo journalism) and pop-culture references keep the story fresh. The best joke was a reference to "The African Queen," which I think really showcased Yafa's humor and ability. Cotton is king.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Janelle

    My interest in this book began when I visited the National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, PA, and saw it in the bookstore - the museum had a neat exhibit of antique spinning wheels on display when I went. I've never been into cotton as a material for spinning or knitting, but I'm fine with reading about it. A few facts in the first quarter of the book (which unfortunately I did not mark) struck me as wrong, given my knowledge of fiber stuff, so I felt like I had to take a lot of the My interest in this book began when I visited the National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, PA, and saw it in the bookstore - the museum had a neat exhibit of antique spinning wheels on display when I went. I've never been into cotton as a material for spinning or knitting, but I'm fine with reading about it. A few facts in the first quarter of the book (which unfortunately I did not mark) struck me as wrong, given my knowledge of fiber stuff, so I felt like I had to take a lot of the book with a grain of salt. The author bio notes that Yafa writes for Playboy and The Rolling Stone, so it seems likely he didn't know much about cotton before beginning this book - still, I could be wrong! But setting all that aside, I found this book interesting - especially the first half, which went over the ancient history of cotton up through the industrial revolution. The author grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, so Lowell got a lot of page time (as it should). Some of Yafa's tangents, like blues songs about boll weevils, seemed a little far afield (but the boll weevil was interesting!). I skimmed quite a bit at the end, until the section about eco-cotton caught my attention again and I slowed down. That part certainly made me think twice about my own clothing. If you like these nonfiction treatments of a single plant or animal, this book could be right up your alley.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Josh Paul

    As a few other people have noted this book is not an exhaustive history of cotton, but something closer to a series of closely connected essays on the plant. The book focuses heavily on the United States. While I generally found Cotton interesting, and Yafa's style engaging, I had two (fairly minor) issues with the book. The first is that he has a few tangents that are not really related to the main theme of the book. For instance he dedicates a fair amount of space to giving an overview of the As a few other people have noted this book is not an exhaustive history of cotton, but something closer to a series of closely connected essays on the plant. The book focuses heavily on the United States. While I generally found Cotton interesting, and Yafa's style engaging, I had two (fairly minor) issues with the book. The first is that he has a few tangents that are not really related to the main theme of the book. For instance he dedicates a fair amount of space to giving an overview of the history of the Blues. His justification is basically that there are some blues songs about Boll Weevils, and some blues musicians grew up on cotton farms... Yeah... The section was interesting enough but there was no real reason for it to be in this book. The second thing that bothered me was that (I believe) Yafa occasionally overplays his hand with regard to the importance of cotton in shaping historical events. I can't really criticize him strongly for this though, as this is a vice that nearly all biographical based histories are prone to.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jrobertus

    You're thinking, "he read a book about cotton? How lame is that?" Well you would be wrong - this is quite a fascinating book. I had no idea that the wonder fiber has had such an impact on human history and culture. But we do all wear clothes so I guess it should not be a surprise. The desire to control cotton led Britain to over run India. THey then halted Indian spinning and sent the cotton to England where mill towns did the spinning and weaving. Cotton also shaped the American economy at the You're thinking, "he read a book about cotton? How lame is that?" Well you would be wrong - this is quite a fascinating book. I had no idea that the wonder fiber has had such an impact on human history and culture. But we do all wear clothes so I guess it should not be a surprise. The desire to control cotton led Britain to over run India. THey then halted Indian spinning and sent the cotton to England where mill towns did the spinning and weaving. Cotton also shaped the American economy at the birth of the nation, being the major cash crop. The cotton gin allowed a vast increase in cotton production and this was the major force behind slavery. Later, cotton jeans spearheaded a standardization of dress around the world. Cotton was one of the first genetically engineered crops and led to a situation where farmers rent seeds since they are forbidden by contract from harvesting and reusing the GM ones. It is an interesting story indeed.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    This is pretty much exactly what you think it is going to be: A big ol' history of cotton. The author is from Lowell, Mass, the original home of American cotton manufacturing. As a result of this, the book has a certain US perspective, but still examines the global ramifications of international cotton trade, from early times to today's China trade conundrum. I thought the one thing lacking from this book was the environmental disruptions of cotton growing. Most of the discussion of harsh pestic This is pretty much exactly what you think it is going to be: A big ol' history of cotton. The author is from Lowell, Mass, the original home of American cotton manufacturing. As a result of this, the book has a certain US perspective, but still examines the global ramifications of international cotton trade, from early times to today's China trade conundrum. I thought the one thing lacking from this book was the environmental disruptions of cotton growing. Most of the discussion of harsh pesticides and GMO cotton was told from a past tense. Little discussion of the toll cotton still takes on the land and how it is being grown in areas that don't naturally support cotton (Texas and Oklahoma). But overall, this was an interesting read and illuminating in many ways. The implications of cotton, politically, historically and environmentally are massive and mind blowing. I would recommend this to fans of historical non-fiction, especially readers of micro-histories.

  13. 4 out of 5

    J.M.

    A very interesting book about the history of cotton, not just in the US but abroad as well. From the cotton mills in England to the early factories in the northern United States, it's informative, well-written, and flows nicely. The author also describes how cotton production was a contributing factor leading up to the American Civil War, and goes into great detail about how that changed after the war and the infestation of the boll weevil. Probably the best thing about this book is the depth of A very interesting book about the history of cotton, not just in the US but abroad as well. From the cotton mills in England to the early factories in the northern United States, it's informative, well-written, and flows nicely. The author also describes how cotton production was a contributing factor leading up to the American Civil War, and goes into great detail about how that changed after the war and the infestation of the boll weevil. Probably the best thing about this book is the depth of the author's research and the volume of information I learned about cotton while reading ~ how it's grown, gathered, processed, and manufactured, and how much we rely on it as a part of our lives. I enjoyed learning about the different businessmen and inventors who brought the crop into our homes as furniture and clothing. A very accessible and interesting read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bookmarks Magazine

    You are what you wear. Or read. Or eat. Or something like that. In the spirit of recent books like Salt and Coal, A novelist and playwright, Yafa examines world history through the prism of a tiny little fiber called cotton. He touches on everything from science and economics to race and popular culture, painting nuanced portraits of cotton's far-reaching effects on the English mill system, B.B. King's blues, and controversies over bioengineering, among other topics. It's a good, solid history, You are what you wear. Or read. Or eat. Or something like that. In the spirit of recent books like Salt and Coal, A novelist and playwright, Yafa examines world history through the prism of a tiny little fiber called cotton. He touches on everything from science and economics to race and popular culture, painting nuanced portraits of cotton's far-reaching effects on the English mill system, B.B. King's blues, and controversies over bioengineering, among other topics. It's a good, solid history, but at times Yafa veers into unrelated topics. He also overgeneralizes, especially when it comes to politics and current events. Yet, as Yafa shows, cotton spurred great battles and changed the world__and continues to do so today. This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    June selection for museum's book club If the rest of the book holds up to the promise of the first 25 pages, we're in for a treat--and a great discussion. . . The rest of the book did indeed hold up. While some of the descriptions of the various weaving equipment confused me, the personalities involved with the early textile industry were fascinating. MUch of it felt very familiar, especially once we got to slavery and sharecropping, but the last two chapters on modern farming, nano-technology and June selection for museum's book club If the rest of the book holds up to the promise of the first 25 pages, we're in for a treat--and a great discussion. . . The rest of the book did indeed hold up. While some of the descriptions of the various weaving equipment confused me, the personalities involved with the early textile industry were fascinating. MUch of it felt very familiar, especially once we got to slavery and sharecropping, but the last two chapters on modern farming, nano-technology and pesticides blew me away. Lots of good history with some humor thrown in. You'll have new respect for the shirt on your back.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

    It's more like a 2.5. The chapters about the growing and manufacture of cotton were good; as were the chapters on GMO and trade disparities. However, the multiple chapters on jeans, music and pop culture all struck such sour notes I almost tossed the book then and there. Really this book could have used a better editor. Not normally a topic I have any interest in, I did learn a lot in reading this book. It was my 2nd-year anniversary gift from my husband (year 2 is a cotton gift) and therefore, It's more like a 2.5. The chapters about the growing and manufacture of cotton were good; as were the chapters on GMO and trade disparities. However, the multiple chapters on jeans, music and pop culture all struck such sour notes I almost tossed the book then and there. Really this book could have used a better editor. Not normally a topic I have any interest in, I did learn a lot in reading this book. It was my 2nd-year anniversary gift from my husband (year 2 is a cotton gift) and therefore, it is a book I will cherish forever (and may even reread at one point - it does contain a lot of new-to-me info about cotton/cotton things).

  17. 5 out of 5

    Phyllis Gauker

    Living in the south, while traveling I've seen plucked cotton fields. My husband, as a child, actually picked cotton and described to me his bleeding hands and feet, and torn clothing from this work, so I grabbed this book to find out more. In college I had studied the Civil War so was aware of the economic part of slavery and the Confederacy/Union. But I'd never thought about the byproducts of cotton picking in the modern world, such as the Blues and Jazz in music, for instance. Certainly I'd t Living in the south, while traveling I've seen plucked cotton fields. My husband, as a child, actually picked cotton and described to me his bleeding hands and feet, and torn clothing from this work, so I grabbed this book to find out more. In college I had studied the Civil War so was aware of the economic part of slavery and the Confederacy/Union. But I'd never thought about the byproducts of cotton picking in the modern world, such as the Blues and Jazz in music, for instance. Certainly I'd thought about man's inhumanity to man in such endeavors. But Mr Yafa made me aware of global economy, from India and Gandhi, to Africa. Very thought producing book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brinn Colenda

    This is a wonderful non-fiction book. It reads like a historical novel and touches on economics, history, race, botany and fashion. Who would have thought that a simple plant could have such influence on human history? There are so many interesting facts that I was soon overwhelmed. Great book for historians, trivia freaks and cocktail party one-uppers. It complements the other Penguin book, Coal, which has the same far-reaching sweep for combustible rocks. Both are great reads...makes you feel This is a wonderful non-fiction book. It reads like a historical novel and touches on economics, history, race, botany and fashion. Who would have thought that a simple plant could have such influence on human history? There are so many interesting facts that I was soon overwhelmed. Great book for historians, trivia freaks and cocktail party one-uppers. It complements the other Penguin book, Coal, which has the same far-reaching sweep for combustible rocks. Both are great reads...makes you feel virtuous about reading such a condensed history instead of a zombie book...

  19. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    This book is less of an exhaustive history of cotton and more of a collection of interesting perspectives which are at least somewhat linked to cotton. Each chapter could really stand on its own and it would probably make for a better to read to just pick up one chapter at a time at your convenience. While Yafa may not be a great historian, he is an entertaining writer. His chapter on denim was particularly engaging and I was completely creeped out by his description of boll weevils.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Andy Anderson

    Wow. Never knew cotton brought so much pain and suffering on one hand and fame and fortune on the other. Great book telling about two basic strains of cotton, history of Britain taking India over cotton, how cotton influenced the Civil War and how inventors made fortunes making machines to process it. The chapter on the fight against the boll weevil that really was just mostly solved just recently. Amazing book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    I was given this book as a gift and did find it an enjoyable and informative history of cotton in the United States. While the book does briefly touch on cotton in other cultures, it is primarily a US-centric history. There was also plenty of sexism, racism, and classism. If you're looking for a history of cotton in the USA, this book is worth picking up. If you want a world history, look elsewhere.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    Not quite to the level of "Oranges" by McPhee or "Botany of Desire" by Pollard, but still and interesting timeline-based walkthrough of the history of this adaptable and applicable fiber plant. Read this for the Civil War historical basis, but was interesting to know evolution of this textile and how it replaced wool in Western world. Towards end of book, Yafa gets a bit activist and focused a bit too much on genetics and the WTO contest-based protests of 2002.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Cam

    Nice overview of the plant, changes in farming and weaving techniques over the centuries. Place cotton at the center of industrialization for both the U.K. and the U.S. and their respective national and international trade and politics for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Leaves a little to be desired when it gets to looking at modern trade policies and politics, but a solid example of modern popular history focusing on one thread of history, or one fiber in this case.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Barb

    A good book in the tradition of Simon Garfield...a trip through the ages with cotton fiber as the focus. I would recommend for anyone who enjoys traveling through history one product at a time. The author takes you from the Middle Ages through the early millennium, ending with biotechnology and fair labor practices. Although I am familiar with the story, it was a good romp through history with interesting biographies of individuals to enhance the story.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    No as good a read as Kurlansky's books, but still very good. I learned too much about Jeans and genetically modified cotton. I learned that most cotton plants in the US are made into feed for cows and such. Pretty gross. The story was too academic in some parts and too non academic in others. I would definitely recommend however.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mary E. Rossow

    Fabulous read. Couldn't put it down. Read it in two days. Big Cotton will appeal to anyone who: 1) Wants to better understand slavery in America 2) Has ever enjoyed sewing, knitting, or weaving 3) Has ever tried to make sense of farm/crop subsidies 4) Has ever fallen in love with a favorite pair of blue jeans 5) Appreciates an author with a pithy, dry sense of humor ~ Mary E. Rossow

  27. 4 out of 5

    Melvenea

    This book was fun to read. I was drawn to this book after becoming obsessed with hand spinning and weaving naturally colored cotton. I would have given this book more stars if it included a more detailed narrative about cotton being used on a small cottage scale. Especially its cultivation and use prior to industrialization. Nonetheless this was a worthwhile read

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    The topic is more than just interesting, it's fascinating; however, the writing is at the other end of that range. More metaphors than Ovid's Metamorphoses; similes as plentiful as the sands of the Sahara. Puns: are they needed to make the story more readable (I think not). The asides (some seemed a bit snarky at times) deprecate the overall narrative.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    By far, one of THE most FASCINATING books I've read in a VERY long time! This did NOT read like a boring history book.......... but it gave a phenomenal insight into the growing and production of Cotton! Yes. Cotton with a capital C! If you love learning things new, I highly recommend this book! Enjoy it....... and I bet you never look at a cotton shirt again, in the same way!

  30. 5 out of 5

    John

    Yafa is very detailed and thorough in his reporting on this natural fiber and its role in the birth of the industrial revolution. I think some more attention could have been given to cotton in the context of US and global economies, both in historical and more modern contexts.

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