The fastest way to get me to post something is usually to ask me a question – and one of my IS colleagues did so earlier today. He asked if I had favorite microhistories I wanted to share.
First, a brief definition: microhistories are small pieces of a big idea, basically. Generally, they’re about a given topic (salt, color, honey, chocolate, cod, whatever.) throughout history. They tend to cover ideas and experiences from a wide range of places and times, and one of the things I love about them is all the new areas and ideas I find myself interested in after I read them. Some of them are weird topics, but odd little bits of what makes the world go often make really good microhistories, I’ve found.
You can find some other general lists here: http://librarybooklists.org/nonfiction/microhistory.htm . Below are a few of my favorites: (I used http://bibme.com for the publication info, so these are also sorted in alphabetical order.)
Abbott, Elizabeth. A History of Celibacy. New York: Da Capo, 2001.
Yes, an odd topic – but it’s a look at the power of relationships in history, oddly enough: for a lot of recorded time, celibacy gave people options in their lives that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. That’s particularly true for women, but also in other settings. This is one of those books where every 2-3 pages is a different topic, and I continue to dive deeper into other areas as I get a chance.
Almond, Steve. Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (Harvest Book). New York: Harvest Books, 2005.
A great look at a bunch of mostly-forgotten or highly-regional candies: funny, thoughtful, and fascinating.
Anelli, Melissa. Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon. New York: Pocket, 2008.
About Harry Potter and Potter fandom – from someone heavily involved in one of the main fan websites. Again, fascinating for a look inside a particular community and culture, and also (at least to me) entertaining in writing style.
Bishop, Holley. Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey–The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World. New York City: Free Press, 2006.
All about honey.
Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York City: Broadway, 2000.
A fascinating look at the two largest US chocolate companies at the time. Willy Wonka is not as far off (in terms of industrial spying, etc.) as you’d think – and some of the other factors in companies run by founders with extremely strong personalities and desires make this a fascinating read.
Finlay, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003.
One of my favorites on this list, this is a look at color. Finlay divides the book up into chapter by color, starting with black and brown, and working through red, green, yellow, and so on. She goes from the lapis lazuli mines of Afghanistan to the question of arsenic green (and whether it’s what caused Napoleon’s death.) Lots of fun and also very informative.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.New York: Back Bay Books, 2007.
Maybe not technically a microhistory, but it reads a lot like one. Gladwell always gets me thinking, too.
Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. Boston: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2003. One of the earliest and best-known microhistories (also, a great audio book), Kurlansky has also written about cod, and the Basque history of the world (among others.)
Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve, 2009. I haven’t actually read all of this one yet, just the first chapter, but it’s a funny and thoughtful look at the history of Chinese food in America.
Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. All about what happens to people’s bodies after they die and donate their bodies to science – there are a lot more options than you think. What made Roach’s book a best-seller is that despite the topic, she’s caring, and thoughtful about what she finds out, and shares it in a spirit of learning and understanding, rather than poking fun or in horror.