Have you ever wondered where coffee came from and when people in Europe began to drink it—or tea, or chocolate? Or when men began to wear trousers rather than a robe? Or why the Arabs plundered Africa for slaves and honey and ivory? Or why women’s fashion, changing from year to year, is so attractive and necessary to our aesthetic sense? Or how early Polynesians navigated the Pacific? And by the way, when did people in Europe stop eating with their hands (which Montaigne says he did most of the time) and begin using an amazing implement called a fork (hint: it was not that long ago). Why was the New World so important to European cuisine—specifically, when did maize, potatoes, chocolate enter their diet, and when did tomatoes appear in Italian sauce?
I used to wonder out loud, and then one of my sons suggested I read Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life. He had come across it while studying for a history exam in England. I bought it, I could not put it down, I read it for pleasure, I keep it close to verify the realities of the world.
Don’t be frightened by the fact that this is the first long volume of a three-volume work entitled Civilization and Capitalism from the 15th to 18th Century, or that Braudel’s other masterpiece is the two-volume The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip the Second (which he wrote in a German prison camp). The titles are daunting, the books themselves are wonderful—brilliant in their insights and research, written with intelligence and wit, and providing the education you mistakenly believed you had.
The Structures of Everyday Life provides answers to all those questions about the world that demonstrate the ingenuity, the opportunism, the bravery, the imagination, and the salesmanship of people throughout the world in the centuries under discussion; the great shifts in civilizations, the changes in tastes and ideas, the innovations and fatuities.
Besides answering all those questions above, Braudel deals with energy, fuel, transportation, printing, and warfare—the whys, the hows. And he discusses the formation of villages and towns, the creation of cities—cities are a fairly recent phenomenon in the world. Braudel sees cities as generators of ideals and inventions, but also problematical.
Looking closely at the past is a way of discerning the future. This book is essential, but it also felicitous in style and well-informed. It is a particular satisfaction to me that much of it is based on the first-hand observations of travelers plodding along in the wider world.
Paul Theroux’s latest book is the novel Mother Land.