I think I’ve spotted a trend in the History publishing world. The days of sweeping, sprawling sagas that cover a vast canvas appear to be over. This is the day of the mono-history (to coin a term), the history of a single invention, food, natural resource or other singular item. The titles below are in no particular order.
Salt: a world history, by Mark Kurlansky – Published in 2002, Kurlansky’s history of the world’s most important commodity is probably the best known mono-history and the only one to appear on the best-seller lists. I found it fascinating and inspiring. Kurlansky seems to enjoy mono-history because Salt followed another monohistory on a critical food commodity Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and he followed up with The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.
A Splintered History of Wood: belt sander races, blind woodworkers and baseball bats, by Spike Carlsen – The title alone intrigues. The book is obviously the result of a passionate involvement with wood. It was incredibly informational, just a bit scary in spots (the story of Ludgar the War Wolf, an enourmous catapult that took 55 carpenters several months to build and used 300 pound shot), and very funny.
Pizza: a global history, by Carol Helstosky – Pizza as this book explains is “both an ethnic food and a blank canvas.” Although it neatly sidesteps the perennial question of where Pizza was invented, this brief volume does a great job of giving us pizza history, factoids and a few classic recipes.
Ice Cream: the delicious history, by Marilyn Powell This is a very personal history. Powell weaves stories gleaned from friends and family with ice cream lore and history. She readily admits that there are gaps in our knowledge of the history of this fluid desert. Instead of a standard timeline approach to history Powell follows various themes through time. The result is fun, frothy and very readable.
quirky QWERTY: a biography of the typewriter and its many characters, by Torbjorn Lundmark – A very short book and as quirky as the QWERTY keyboard, Lundmark devotes only the first 31 pages to the development of the typewriter and the keyboard. The remaining pages are a loving and free-wheeling discussion of the history of the individual keys – from punctuation thru the alphabet to the space bar.
Language Visible: unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from a to z, by David Sacks – Unlike quirky QWERTY this is a much longer and more scholarly book. It’s alot of fun. I would actually call this a collection of mini mono-histories. Each letter of the alphabet gets a complete history of its sound, its shape, and its “aura.” Poor letter “F” is doomed by association to be slightly risque in the eyes of the public.
The pencil: a history of design and circumstance, by Henry Petroski – This lyrical book by a writer-engineer may be the grandparent of the many mono histories being published today. Originally published in 1989, it was highly praised. One of the jacket blurbs comes from Larry King, who notes “You will never feel the same about the pencil after you read this terrific book.” I have to agree.
Stiletto, by Caroline Cox – As this lavishly illustrated history of the ultimate power shoe warns, “The stilletto is the high heel in its most extreme, modern and dangerous form.” A major part of the fascination of this book is the hundreds of photos of stilleto wearing Hollywood stars, Parisien models, punk fetishists and the women of Sex in the City.
Catalog: an illustrated history of mail-order shopping, by Robin Cherry. American’s have adored catalog shopping since at least the 1870s. Cherry’s history includes the stories behind some famous names, such as, Lillian Vernon and Neiman Marcus. An off- beat section discusses famous models who got their start in mail order catalogs.
These are just a few of the dozens of mono-histories I found in our catalog. I would love to read histories – as soon as they are written - about: tunnels, jigsaw puzzles, bricks and glass. How about you – Which are the mono-histories you love or the books you’d like to see written?
~ Steve K and Heather MW
See our follow-up post on viewing history through a wide-angle lens. ~ ed.