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Oceans of Grain
How American Wheat Remade the World
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To understand the rise and fall of empires, we must follow the paths traveled by grain—along rivers, between ports, and across seas. In Oceans of Grain, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson reveals how the struggle to dominate these routes transformed the balance of world power.
Early in the nineteenth century, imperial Russia fed much of Europe through the booming port of Odessa, on the Black Sea in Ukraine. But following the US Civil War, tons of American wheat began to flood across the Atlantic, and food prices plummeted. This cheap foreign grain spurred the rise of Germany and Italy, the decline of the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, and the European scramble for empire. It was a crucial factor in the outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
A powerful new interpretation, Oceans of Grain shows that amid the great powers’ rivalries, there was no greater power than control of grain.
Oceans of Grain: The region that is sometimes called Europe on the left, its Black Sea breadbasket on the right, and the vital pinch point on the Bosporus Strait, c. 1912
THE BLACK PATHS
THE NEXT MORNING, I left the mafia compound, waved good-bye to the guards, and headed out to visit Odessa. My goal was to traverse what Ukrainians call the “black paths” (chorni shlyakhy). These are the ancient oxen trails that cut across the Ukrainian plains to Black Sea ports.
I was looking for paths, but traces of empire jumped out at me. When I found a bus stop down the road, the bus shelter had a large sign advertising a brand of kvass: a sour, slightly alcoholic drink made from bread crusts soaked in water. A peasant beverage for ten centuries, kvass was an iconic symbol of imperial rule, the daily drink the steward of a Slavic noble household rationed out to serfs. It so symbolized the bond between lord and serf that critics of the tsar in the 1800s referred to crass expressions of expansionist Russian nationalism as kvass-patriotism. The drink, now carbonated, filtered, and sweetened, has recently reemerged in Ukraine and Russia as competition for expensive American sodas.1
Kvass is an emblem of empire, but its sour and fizzy flavor comes from yeast still alive in the crusts of rye bread. That tangy taste can give you a sense of some of bread’s mysteries. Yeast and water are naturally plentiful on this planet, but a complicated chemistry takes place when they are mixed with ground-up grain. Recent archaeological research from the Fertile Crescent (near what is now Jordan) suggests that baked, slightly leavened bread is at least 14,400 years old.2 That makes bread older than writing, older than cities, and older than most domesticated animals. In many societies between the British Isles and the eastern edges of China, the mystery of summoning food from this mixture of wheat, bacteria, and yeast was transmitted for thousands of years. Some of the earliest Mediterranean folktales preserve bread’s secrets.
The ancient song of Demeter, reproduced in the Homeric hymns of 700 to 800 BC, suggests how to store the seeds of flowering weeds like emmer, wheat, and rye. Some ancient scholars believe that the story was taught to children as survival lore, to be remembered in case of famine, flight, or early separation. One-third of the seeds were gathered at harvest and placed in an underground vault. Thus Demeter’s “slim-ankled” daughter Persephone is snatched from the fields and shoved “into the misty gloom” at a time when the narcissus flowers are blooming (late winter). Persephone, trapped in the underworld, stays preserved there, pining for her family. She waits months for rescue: “For so long hope charmed her strong mind despite her distress. The mountain peaks and the depths of the sea echoed in response to her divine voice.” Wheat kernels in seed vaults can be preserved for many months in vitro without “spoiling,” that is, without either growing into wheat plants or serving as a host for bacteria and yeast. If wheat kernels in their adolescent, Persephone-like form remain tightly sealed and thus untouched by yeast, they can be transported and planted the next season, in either spring or fall.3 Saving grain for the next season is just as important, for long-term survival, as harvesting, grinding, and baking.
How does the remaining amount of raw grain become food? With the hymn of Demeter as our guide, we learn that the kernel must be dried with fire for nine days (Demeter searches for her daughter with a torch and does not bathe her skin in water). The heat allows the outer hull to be removed (Demeter doffs her dark cloak). The kernel is set by the family hearth (in the household of Metaneira). Then the kernels are mixed with water, barley, and pennywater (Demeter asks the family for this drink). This would provide enough yeast to start the process. At this point wild fungi and bacteria do the seemingly magical, invisible work of saccharification. At a microscopic level, the two microbes digest the wheat’s starch and cellulose, expelling simple sugars. As the fungi breathes out carbon dioxide, the product rises. Once risen, the mush can then be heated and fed to children to make them grow strong. In the fable, Metaneira is too old to nurse her infant son, and so Demeter feeds the boy with this miraculous product. Because the yeast is still alive in bread, the leftovers, stored in a closed vessel for a few days, yield beer or kvass, an important source of calories for peasants and farmers.
Persephone’s ability to stay preserved in a jar or sack made a long-distance trade in grain possible. Traders moved in caravans of a hundred carts lashed together, each laden with a ton of goods: fish and salt for the trip north, leather and grain for the journey south. One of those black paths led all the way north and west to the Black Forest in what is now the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Traders occasionally rode on navigable stretches of the Dniester River to save time and energy. Beside these paths lay ancient kurgans—burial mounds for these ancient travelers when their traveling was done.
The black paths, according to Ukrainian legend, were formed by a band of ancient warrior-merchants, predecessors of the Cossacks, called the chumaki (Turkish for “stick” or “spear”). Two oxen pulled each cart, and the chumaki walked beside them. When attacked by roving bands of horsemen—Avars, Khazars, Haidamaki, or Tatars—the chumaki gathered in a circle, spears out. The chumaki had distinctive stories, sorrow songs, signaling horns, and burial rituals. The Ukrainian name for the Milky Way—the long band of stars that moves over us at night—is Chumatski Way. The chumak, depicted as a man in chumaki songs, sang as he traveled and sang when he returned home:
By the river along the shore
Walked a chumak with his whip,
Home from the Don.
A sack on his back
And a patched-up caftan—
I’ve had enough of chumaking.
“If I fail to find destiny,
I’ll go to the publican’s tavern,
Hey-hey, and forget my trouble!”4
Ukrainian folklorists have long claimed that the chumaki are older than the ancient world. According to folklorist Ivan Rudchenko, who interviewed them in the 1860s, the chumaki came before “class society,” before “civilization,” even before “homelands.” For untold centuries, he was told, the chumaki used oxen to find destiny, hauling wheat from farming towns on the Ukrainian plains to stone fortresses that dotted the northern coast of the Black Sea. Empires rose and fell—Persian, Athenian, Roman, Byzantine, Mongol, Venetian, Genoese, Ottoman—trying to get their hands on chumaki grain. Along with leather, lead, and slaves, the chumaki filled the Black Sea fortresses with grain.5 The paths waxed and waned as human settlement was wiped off the plains multiple times.
Geographers, by comparison, loved the paths but ignored the traders. They argued that empires came first, believing them to be defined by their control of trade lines, usually rivers or oceans. Between around 2270 and 1600 BC, “potamic” (river-based) states controlled a river or rivers and drew grain as tribute from nearby. The Akkadian Empire, in what is now Iraq, Kuwait, and southwestern Iran, drew grain from farmlands up and down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Egyptian Empire collected grain from farmers along the Nile. By the third century BC, new “thalassic” (ocean-based) empires had emerged. The Mauryan Empire on the Indian subcontinent collected food on the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal; the Han demanded grain from farmlands in the west but also took food from farmers across the East China Sea; Athenians took farms in Italy and western Turkey and along the Black Sea coast.6 An empire was a grain pump: grain traveled inward from an empire’s “inner ring” of farmland to feed capital cities; grain also spread outward to land and water frontiers where it fed far-flung sailors and soldiers. Absorbing food from the inner ring, the city center repaid chumaki traders with cloth, wine, and leather goods.7
Historians, like geographers, have long treated grain ports, like those on the Black Sea, as the children of thalassic empires, with chumaki as their worker bees. The ancient Greek word for such a provisioning port is emporion, the source of the word “empire.” Port traders in these emporia specialized in gathering, drying, and storing food for shipment. Grain came as trade, tribute, and tax to the emporia to feed the arms of an empire, its armies. In the historian’s imagination the Roman Empire built trade in western Europe, for example, with Roman roads, mileposts, and armies. There was no China, the story goes, until Han canals fused the region into a single domain of trade. New archaeological evidence suggests that the folklorists have it right and that the black paths are prehistoric, nearly as old as bread itself. The proof that trade pathways were ancient is a tiny bacillus that traveled inside chumaki traders’ bodies: Yersinia pestis. This is the bacillus that causes what we now call plague but which Slavs called chuma. The chuma crossed these plains many times, each time riding on trading paths, each time decimating human populations in the towns where grain was gathered and stored. Chuma rode with the chumaki.
The first appearance of Y. pestis was a prehistoric plague that struck in roughly 2800 BC, centuries before any river-ruling empire existed. In 2019 archaeologists traced the oldest extant Y. pestis, found in human molars, to Trypillia, a Copper Age city about three hundred miles north of Odessa. From Trypillia the plague must have followed black paths west, south, and east. Within five hundred years it had killed humans from China to Sweden. We only know about these Copper Age trade routes because the bacillus evolved as it traveled, and it traveled distances too great to be explained by migration or war. Using genome-wide next-generation sequencing, geneticists can now trace the movement of millions of humans over thousands of years using only a few hundred DNA samples.8 Any large-scale movement of people over long distances will show up as genetic drift. Genetic-drift analysis for this period suggests that no human traveled even a fraction of the distance between China and Sweden between 2800 and 2300 BC. Yet trade between thousands of chumaki-like traders, inadvertently carrying the bacillus from town to town, must have brought the pestis into millions of households across the world.
In fact, trade by people like the chumaki may be how agriculture started. Anthropologists who study the origin of farming around 10,000 BC have suggested that grain growing originated in moist habitats—near springs or lakes—that travelers found between areas of scarce, valuable resources, such as obsidian or seashells. Prehistoric travelers would drop seeds in these “settlement cells” and return the next season, cutting the grain and grinding it for food before moving on. The first wheat “farmers” may in fact have been travelers or traders who, after decades of migration, stayed behind in these way stations. Over time, apparently, settled communities gathered at these stopping points.
It is easy to view traders as leeches who profit from the work of others. That is certainly how the Russian tsars viewed Odessa’s Jews who arranged delivery of grain onto ships. But the trading and dropping of seeds may actually be the world’s oldest profession, and farms, towns, states, empires, and armies are the beneficiaries of the bounty that planetary traders scattered beneath their feet.9
While we can only guess at mortality figures for ancient strains of Yersinia, the strain that left Trypillia in 2800 BC and traveled the black paths did so at roughly the same time that, DNA records suggest, human populations around the world plummeted in what is called the Neolithic decline. After this Neolithic decline, empires sprouted along the pathways. Centuries later the city-state of Uruk fell to the Akkadians, who developed one of the world’s first empires in what is now mostly Iraq.
How would empires emerge along trading lines? We lack written evidence. Perhaps a local warlord found an existing crossroads between paths and demanded payment for passage. Perhaps a group of traders blocked competitors, then bound themselves by pledges into military households. Perhaps a group of armed traders took advantage of weakened city-states to assert their control. Trading networks apparently came first, then Y. pestis, and then, perhaps in the devastation, soldiers who claimed multiple crossroads and nearby farming towns. An empire could establish a protection racket along chumaki pathways and in a few generations assume the mantle of imperial rule.10
If we think of the paths from the perspective of the chumaki, the laboring people whose oxen first brought the world together, empires did not create trade but slowed, bounded, and taxed it. Empires, for their part, claimed to police and protect trade. Indeed, imperial origin stories often emphasize their capacity to drive out competing tax agents (commonly called robbers, highwaymen, or pirates). Thus Thomas Carlyle, in extolling the growing empire of Frederick the Great, argued that his greatness came from defeating the robbers that demanded tribute for trade over the Rhine River and were ruining Germany. “Such Princes, big and little, each wrenching off for himself what lay loosest and handiest to him, found [robbery] a stirring game, and not so much amiss.”11 The heroic Frederick the Great replaced local robbery with an even more stirring game: taxing robbers.
For their own benefit emperors might cheapen trade by forcing imperial subjects to improve roads, build milestones and lighthouses, and deepen ports. In improving prehistoric trade routes between towns, an empire could decrease the price of what I will call, using an obsolete medieval term, “tollage,” a travel cost measured in pennies per ton per mile.12 This was simultaneously a measure of cost, weight, and distance. Absolutist states turned rivers into canals and built roads across rivers. Decreasing tollage centralized imperial authority and quickened trade.
The efficiency of black paths—the blood vessels for traded food—is no small matter. The United Nations and World Bank measure the density of every country’s traffic in ton-kilometers (tkm). In the 2020s, for example, a country’s tkm multiplied by 650 will give you a close approximation of that country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in US dollars. The connection between GDP and tkm works in both directions. GDP growth apparently fuels demand for improving the black paths that become roads, while improving black paths increases GDP. When it comes to a society’s economic well-being, the black paths are everything. Both the World Bank and the United Nations emphasize that cheapening the efficiency of these paths (in cents per tkm) can accelerate a nation’s production. The more efficient the black paths, the more a country, village, empire, or town can assemble products together for further processing and trade.13
Empires imposed a tax on black paths, as did disease. Bacilli like Y. pestis hijacked black paths repeatedly after 2800 BC. In bringing devastation they were, in a way, a natural tax on trade. In the Bible, John of Patmos’s vision in the book of Revelation (written around AD 95) gives us a memorable metaphor for how pestilence traveled along the paths. The prophet John describes the apocalypse coming with four riders. The rider on the white horse “went forth conquering”; the man on the red horse took away “peace from the earth”; the one on the black horse took advantage, selling only “a measure of wheat” but demanding an exorbitant penny for it; and finally, the rider on the pale horse brought death. Y. pestis, reproducing and feeding on the bodies of riders, surely brought all four when chumaki brought pest-infected trade goods into settlements. After the Neolithic collapse, humans abandoned these plains for centuries, then slowly repopulated them. Humans returned, black paths connected them again, and empires rose to thrive on the bounty. The bread pathways constantly surged underneath, sustaining the empires but also carrying the forces of their own collapse. What brought humans back to these plains was the fading of memory and the promise of sharing bread.
As empires grew along trading paths, they absorbed and adapted the mysteries of grain and yeast. Women and men in the Roman Empire took the Greek myths of Demeter and Persephone and forged them into the Eleusinian mysteries—rituals for initiation into the cult of Demeter and Persephone, a cult built around knowledge of grain and fungus, life and food. Actors depicted the mysteries in rituals performed in underground theaters for those who swore not to reveal the cult’s secrets. By that point Roman matrons and priests had turned the Greek goddess Demeter into the Roman goddess Ceres. Her cult seems to have been similarly practical—something like a college class in wheat storage, cultivation, fermentation, and baking preserved in imperial ritual. In Egypt the cult of Nepri likewise served as a combination of legend, planting guide, and cookbook but also as justification for control by imperial elites. In Russia and Ukraine the Slavic god of spring, Jarilo, was (like Persephone) preserved for a time in a coffin, then buried in the soil. People should copulate in the fields, in more than a few legends, to seal the deal with the gods and thus lead the wheat plants to fruit.14
But if the preservation, storage, and heating of a yeasty bun is impossibly ancient, it was also wickedly expensive in terms of the resources brought together. We can divide the process into three parts. Part one was planting and harvesting on an open plain. Part two was storing and shipping to bread eaters, the emporium part. Part three was cracking, separating, and winnowing into flour, mixing with yeast and water, then rising and baking. Cities often did that part. Of course, armies on the move could harvest, crack, and bake grain as bread. Roman soldiers carried scythes along with their swords for impromptu taxation.15 For at least fifty centuries, considerable human labor was devoted to part two: carrying grain from dry, flat places where wheat grew best to spots that had stone, leather, clay, or salt where it was most easily prepared. Empires emerged to engross and centralize part two, feasting on the networks that bonded farming towns together, inserting their own justifications for sovereignty into myths older than the empires themselves.16
Though empires come and go, the technologies of grain planting, collection, storage, and conversion to food remain as their deepest fundaments. The grain pathways connecting humans are older than written words, so deep and hard to see that they are almost invisible. But for people accustomed to watching grain move—grain traders, in particular—they are the ancient man-made circulatory system that makes civilization possible. When the paths are diverted or blocked, the horrea will be quickly emptied. Laws, armies, kings, and the marble columns sustaining them will crumble. We can only mourn the passing of grain like Demeter crying for her lost Persephone.
Looking at my maps, I could see the black paths but not how these lines could build up or destroy empires. To do that, I needed to follow the paths into deep water. I understood that Odessa could not have existed without the weakening of the imperial city at the gates of the Bosporus. It was first called Byzantium, then Constantinople, then Istanbul. In 1896, Parvus said that this city had been at the center of the world’s trade for thousands of years, and its weakness had made Odessa great. How, I wondered, was that possible?17
THE GATES OF CONSTANTINOPLE
800 BC–AD 1758
IN THE EIGHTH century BC, Ionian Greek traders established stone trading posts that extended all the way to the northern side of the Black Sea. From each post they collected a thousand or more sacks of grain and loaded them onto massive ships bound for the granaries of Rhodes and Athens. The foreign grain would feed those cities along with Sparta, Pylos, Mycenae, and Thebes. Throughout the century a new elite, the aristoi, emerged who made their wealth from trade with the Greek cities. Their banquets were legendary, but they were not well loved. Greek odes recalling a lost golden age attacked the aristoi for their wealth, their outsized influence, and their corruption of Greek cities.
In response to criticism, the aristoi paid poets, singers, and storytellers to spin stories of their wily trading, clever deals, loneliness, and bold adventuring. The legacy of their grain expeditions were adventure tales, including The Iliad and The Odyssey. While the puffed-up fables of their spectacular conflicts with hydras and sirens on the Black Sea were memorable, the grain traders’ burdens were rather more prosaic. The greatest burden on the Black Sea was a tyrannical tax. To feed Greek cities, every year the ships of the aristoi had to pass through the mile-wide Bosporus Strait and the nearby Dardanelles. The “tyrants on the Bosporus,” as one of Aristotle’s students called the rulers of Byzantium, controlled the aristoi’s gateway to life-giving Black Sea grain. Throughout history the tyrants used derelict ships, iron chains, and Greek fire to block grain traders who tried to rush the gates. Stand and deliver, said the highwayman at the crossroads, and so said the tyrants who ruled Byzantium.1
The aristoi long resented Byzantium’s monopoly control of this low-friction corridor that separated Greece from its grain. Using pinch points in the trade for grain is, like bread and the chumaki, older than recorded history. According to one fable, an oracle had told Byzas, son of the water god Poseidon, to settle on the narrow strait of the Bosporus that connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Byzas built Byzantium on the hill that overlooked the Bosporus so that he could dominate waterborne trade between East and West. Over the centuries Persians, Spartans, Athenians, and Romans captured the city whose markets and bazaars gathered together the goods of an ancient world economy that stretched from France to China. Byzantium was a city that taxed but also a city of trade, a meeting point for leather, spices, silk, wine, and grain. In the ancient world, the second phase of the grain-to-food pathway—the gathering and shipping—could stretch hundreds of miles and demand considerable energy.
By the fifth century BC, the “ten thousander” ships of the aristoi could carry about ten thousand sacks of grain (roughly four hundred tons) from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. They used both square sails and galley slaves who stood two and three abreast on each oar, hauling grain from the stone ports on the Black Sea to hungry ancient cities on the Greek peninsula and its many islands. In the centuries that followed, the Persians, Macedonians, and Romans copied these ships, but they never matched their size. The last ten thousander owned by one of the aristoi must have sailed through the Bosporus before AD 300. Ships that large would not regularly travel any ocean in the world until the Spanish galleons of the sixteenth century.2
For the aristoi in the loosely organized Athenian Empire, grain represented wealth: concentrated and dried calories, the crucial raw material that fed cities and armies. Grain collection at Rhodes paid for a famous statue, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the ancient wonders of the world. We know that wealthy grain merchants probably paid for the original statue because when it collapsed in an earthquake, the city solicited Greek grain traders to rebuild it.3
Two hundred years after the first ten thousander passed through the gates of Byzantium, in the third century BC, the Romans defeated the Hellenistic kingdoms, taking the Greek islands and peninsula, and by 129 BC the Romans could in turn draw tribute from the city of tyrants. But the Greeks, to paraphrase Horace, also captured her uncivilized conquerors by bringing skills to rustic Rome.4 When the Romans captured Byzantium, they sacked the stone ports on the Black Sea and rebuilt them, while adopting the mysterious Greek techniques of grain gathering, drying, and storing.5
Romans called Byzantium “the eye of the Universe.” Recognizing its unique power and position, they built aqueducts into the city and extended roads to it, including the Via Appia and the Via Egnatia. The roads expanded Byzantium’s reach, giving it access to the Aegean, Ionian, and Adriatic Seas. At around the same time the massive grain ships of the aristoi disappeared from archaeological records, perhaps because Roman roads diminished the power of waterways or because smaller ships were required on the shorter route from the Black Sea to Byzantium.
"Original and intriguing…[Nelson] makes a strong case that the wheat trade’s contribution to history has not been given its due.”—Wall Street Journal
- “Scott Reynolds Nelson in his gripping Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World…is quite serious about the world-ordering power of wheat. Moreover, his grain obsession is infectious. You begin the book a sober reader, calmly appreciating the complexity of historical causation, and you finish it a raving wheat monomaniac.”—Daniel Immerwahr, New York Review of Books
- “An incredibly timely history… Nelson makes a persuasive case that grain production, storage, transport and trade was the defining factor in the rise and fall of civilisations from Rome to Byzantium to the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia…”—Financial Times
- “[A] sweeping and timely new history...vitally provocative.”—Irish Times
- "Readable, original and provocative, this is a book that deserves attention."—David Abulafia, The Spectator
“Oceans of Grain is provocative. Well researched and readable, Nelson has written a book that will fascinate both professional historians and regular folk."
- "Oceans of Grain is an eye opening feat of historical reconsideration.”—Smoke Signals
- "In the vein of other groundbreaking historical revisionist books, Oceans of Grain runs a fine toothed comb through history to tell an unexpected tale of what caused some empires to crumble while others survived and thrived: grain. …much as he does in his previous book, Steel Drivin’ Man, Reynolds Nelson introduces new key actors that shed important light on the story. A quick read despite its length, Oceans of Grain’s reinterpretation of a humble commodity’s history makes a case that wheat has had as much of an impact on our country and our planet as cotton—and that the fight for the power of grain is far from over.”—Civil Eats
- “A sweeping and timely new history...vitally provocative.”—Irish Times
- “American cotton changed the world in the first half of the nineteenth century, American wheat in its second half. Scott Reynolds Nelson’s globe-spanning exploration of the powers of a humble grain to topple empires, enable industrialization, build cities, and redirect trade flows is the kind of commodity history one wishes for: attentive to politics, connected as well as comparative in perspective, and with a knack for telling details. After reading this fast-paced book, the wars, revolutions, and empires of the nineteenth century will never seem the same.”—Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton
- “Nelson’s signature mastery of scale is on full display in Oceans of Grain. Here we watch him play out the revolutionary implications of the American seizure of the international wheat market in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. This remarkable book rearranges what you think you know about the United States and the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”—Stephanie McCurry, Columbia University
- “Nelson reveals the deep international career of wheat as a maker and breaker of empires and of people from Roman times until the twentieth century. Oceans of Grain is a book of astounding reach and depth, wholly original, gripping to read, and destined to become an instant classic. Rice and maize should be so lucky.”—James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain
- “Oceans of Grain is the best work of history I have read in a very long time. Witty and wise, it reveals how conspirators and heads of state, workers and entrepreneurs, and philosophers and economists turned the human struggle for daily bread into wars and empires, revolutions and conquests, feasts and famines. It takes readers from the granaries and ancient trade pathways of Europe to the US Civil War and the overthrow of slavery, the founding of empires, the slaughterhouses of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and, finally, to our contemporary, interconnected, and profoundly unequal world. Along the way, Scott Reynolds Nelson introduces us to the individuals who made and remade this world. Some are welcome new acquaintances and others—like Abraham Lincoln and Vladimir Lenin—are shown in such new light that it feels as if we are meeting them for the first time.”—Angela Zimmerman, George Washington University
- On Sale
- Feb 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Basic Books