Learn the History Behind Your Favorite Things
I first encountered the microhistory genre a few years ago in a reading challenge. Don’t let the word micro throw you off, as these are intense biographies of something quite specific, such as one historical event, or item.
Think about your favorite day-to-day items and foods. Chances are each has a long complicated history of how it got to the version you enjoy now.
The first book I read in this genre, at least once I knew what a microhistory is, was Candyfreak by Steve Almond. (If you know me at all, this should not surprise you one bit!)Steve is a fantastic nonfiction writer, and you may know him as the co-host of The Dear Sugar Podcast with Cheryl Strayed.
Like me, Steve has had a lifelong love affair with candy of all types. In fact, he was distressed by the disappearance of some candy bars from his youth, that he took off on a journey around the country, visiting the remaining small scale family owned candy businesses. What we get is not only an in-depth history of those particular candies, but also of the candy business in general as it has transitioned from small scale to large factory scale over the last few generations.
Since Candyfreak, I have sought out other microhistories and learned some fascinating stories behind American culture and science. While I’ll admit, some of them can get a bit dense and dry at times, they’re an overall excellent way to learn something new.
Here are a few microhistories I’ve enjoyed and some others that are on my To-Read-List!
8 Fascinating Microhistories of Your Favorite Things
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
From Goodreads: The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel
From Goodreads: But for all its ubiquity, the banana is surprisingly mysterious; nobody knows how bananas evolved or exactly where they originated. Rich cultural lore surrounds the fruit. Entire Central American nations have been said to rise and fall over the banana. But the biggest mystery about the banana today is whether it will survive. A seedless fruit with a unique reproductive system, every banana is a genetic duplicate of the next, and therefore susceptible to the same blights. Today’s yellow banana, the Cavendish, is increasingly threatened by such a blight — and there’s no cure in sight. Banana combines a pop-science journey around the globe, a fascinating tale of an iconic American business enterprise, and a look into the alternately tragic and hilarious banana subculture (one does exist) — ultimately taking us to the high-tech labs where new bananas are literally being built in test tubes, in a race to save the world’s most beloved fruit.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
From Goodreads: From its humble agrarian origins to its present-day artisanal glory, butter has a fascinating story to tell, and Khosrova is the perfect person to tell it. With tales about the ancient butter bogs of Ireland, the pleasure dairies of France, and the sacred butter sculptures of Tibet, Khosrova details butter’s role in history, politics, economics, nutrition, and even spirituality and art. Readers will also find the essential collection of core butter recipes, including beurre manié, croissants, pâte brisée, and the only buttercream frosting anyone will ever need, as well as practical how-tos for making various types of butter at home–or shopping for the best.
The Calendar by David Ewing Duncan
From Goodreads: Measuring the daily and yearly cycle of the cosmos has never been entirely straightforward. The year 2000 is alternatively the year 2544 (Buddhist), 6236 (Ancient Egyptian), 5761 (Jewish) or simply the Year of the Dragon (Chinese). The story of the creation of the Western calendar, which is related in this book, is a story of emperors and popes, mathematicians and monks, and the growth of scientific calculation to the point where, bizarrely, our measurement of time by atomic pulses is now more accurate than time itself: the Earth is an elderly lady and slightly eccentric – she loses half a second a century. Days have been invented (Julius Caesar needed an extra 80 days in 46BC), lost (Pope Gregory XIII ditched ten days in 1582) and moved (because Julius Caesar had 31 in his month, Augustus determined that he should have the same, so he pinched one from February).
Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
From Goodreads: Discover the tantalizing true stories behind your favorite colors.
For example: Cleopatra used saffron—a source of the color yellow—for seduction. Extracted from an Afghan mine, the blue “ultramarine” paint used by Michelangelo was so expensive he couldn’t afford to buy it himself. Since ancient times, carmine red—still found in lipsticks and Cherry Coke today—has come from the blood of insects.
Bicycle: The History by David V. Herlihy
From Goodreads: During the nineteenth century, the bicycle evoked an exciting new world in which even a poor person could travel afar and at will. Because we live in an age of cross-country bicycle racing and high-tech mountain bikes, we may overlook the decades of development and ingenuity that transformed the basic concept of human-powered transportation into a marvel of engineering. This lively and engrossing history retraces the extraordinary story of the bicycle—a history of disputed patents, brilliant inventions, and missed opportunities. Herlihy shows us why the bicycle captured the public’s imagination and the myriad ways in which it reshaped our world.
Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail By Stephen R. Bown
From Goodreads: The cure for scurvy ranks among the greatest of human accomplishments, yet its impact on history has, until now, been largely ignored. Scurvy is an evocative journey back to the era of wooden ships and sails, when the disease infiltrated every aspect of seafaring life: press gangs “recruit” mariners on the way home from a late night at the pub; a terrible voyage in search of riches ends with a hobbled fleet and half the crew heaved overboard; Cook majestically travels the South Seas but suffers an unimaginable fate. Brimming with tales of ships, sailors, and baffling bureaucracy, Scurvy is a rare mix of compelling history and classic adventure story.
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
From Goodreads: An engrossing, lively history of a fearsome and misunderstood virus that binds man and dog. The most fatal virus known to science, rabies — a disease that spreads avidly from animals to humans — kills nearly one hundred percent of its victims once the infection takes root in the brain. In this critically acclaimed exploration, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy chart four thousand years of the history, science, and cultural mythology of rabies. From Greek myths to zombie flicks, from the laboratory heroics of Louis Pasteur to the contemporary search for a lifesaving treatment, Rabid is a fresh and often wildly entertaining look at one of humankind’s oldest and most fearsome foes.
What do you think about this genre? Have you read any microhistories?
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