Bookmarks Issue: 

How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map

A-BigCottonWhen people in Peru and Pakistan domesticated a little fiber over 5,000 years ago, the rage for cotton began. Cotton helped spur colonization of the New World and, by the late 1800s, had fueled England’s great Industrial Revolution. In this sweeping history of cotton, Yafa explores the fiber’s impact on the world’s economies and wars, migrations, music, ecosystems, biotechnology, fashion, and agribusiness. He tells this tale through a diverse host of characters, from Christopher Columbus and the American South’s slave traders to dishonest merchants and common laborers. Above all, it’s a story of humankind’s ability to exploit labor and nature, amass great wealth, and reinvent our world—for better or for worse.
Viking. 398 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0670033677

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"That scrawny plant has caused more death, destruction, and bad behavior, and inspired more flights of human ingenuity and innovation than perhaps anything else that grows under the sun. Yes, cotton has a story to tell, and Yafa spins a good yarn." Thomas Maresca

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"… [a] first-rate history of the humble fiber. … The chronicle is best when discussing the process of domesticating cotton and the exceptional people who tamed the fiber, whether inventors, farmers or scientists." Rebecca Maksel

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A readable, informative and often entertaining book about a complex and perhaps surprisingly important subject." Charles Matthews

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"Up to the 20th century, more than two-thirds through Big Cotton, Mr. Yafa’s tale is compellingly told, partly because it is a story, a vivid narrative tracing colonization and commercial genius. It’s when Mr. Yafa comes to current issues, though, that his story becomes diffuse, losing the drama of the Civil War."
Jerome Weeks

Critical Summary

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.