5 May 2021

Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future
by Mary Soderstrom
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Elena Bentley
$28.95 ISBN 9780889777804

In her book, Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future, authorMary Soderstrom asks us to “[l]ook out the nearest window, then try to imagine what the view would look like without concrete.” Admittedly, before reading this book, I hadn’t given it much thought; once I finished the book, however, I started to pay attention: a leftover pile next to the trees outside my house, the garage floor, the sidewalk under my bike—concrete really is everywhere.

Concrete has been used globally in some form or another since about 8700 BCE, which means that concrete has a fairly substantial history. Soderstrom holds our attention by taking us on a fascinating journey through this history, briefly highlighting concrete structures of note and the issues that surround them. Found in all levels of society, from the super highways in California to the Great Wall in China, Soderstrom confirms that concrete is “a truly egalitarian material.”

So prevalent is concrete’s presence that it has made its way into popular culture. As any good English major would, Soderstrom makes reference to novels by literary greats like John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, and William Faulkner whose stories prominently feature concrete in their plots. Musicians like Woody Guthrie, and George Dor wrote songs about it. Should you want to stay current on all things concrete, you could subscribe to World Cement Magazine. And, if you’re looking for more concrete education on your next vacation (post COVID-19, of course), you might consider attending the World of Concrete tradeshow held annually in Las Vegas, Nevada.

To further demonstrate the way concrete is built into the foundation of our experiences, Soderstrom draws on her own personal connections to concrete to organize the book. Her memories punctuate the narrative like steel rebar, holding the narrative in place and giving it strength, while providing transitions between space and time. Her conversational writing style is lively and very accessible, unlike more traditional history texts. But the real strength of the book is Soderstrom’s thoughtful consideration of the arguments both for and against the use of concrete.

On the one hand, concrete has created serious environmental consequences for our planet. Deforestation, sand shortage, disrupted salmon routes, air pollution—these are just a few of the issues we face as we continue to produce and use concrete; in fact, Soderstrom notes that “worldwide cement production is responsible for between 4 to 6 percent of all CO2 emissions.” On the other hand, concrete has allowed us to bring electricity in the form of dams and hydropower to remote towns and cities. Irrigated fields, flood control, skyscrapers, and affordable housing would not have been possible without concrete.

If you hadn’t noticed all the concrete around you before reading this book, you will surely notice it after. Because, whether “for good or ill,” “concrete is responsible… for the world we live in today, and not to appreciate it is to ignore both its menace and its beauty.”


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