Viewing history with a tightly focused lens

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, saltKurlansky’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

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 quirky-qwerty1many 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. 

stilettoStiletto, 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.

This entry was posted in BOOKS, History and Biography, LISTS, Nonfiction, re:SEARCH and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Viewing history with a tightly focused lens

  1. I’ve got “The ascent of Money” by Naill Fergusson. Quite good, and obviously extremely topical!

  2. rrsafety says:

    Would Longitude fit in with this?

  3. nickd says:

    My first one of these was ‘Longitude’ by Dava Sobel. What I like about these books is how they make me look at simple things in a new way.

  4. Eric says:

    Don’t forget about Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney W. Mintz. I think it came out in 1986, making it the granddaddy of most of the books on your list. It’s a wonderful read that shows how important sugar was in creating the world we live in.

  5. Guy says:

    I recently read “A History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage. It covers the ways in which beer, wine, liquor, coffee, tea, and cola have influenced, and have been influenced by, the development of various cultures since the earliest days of civilization. I highly recommend it to any fan of the mono-history genre.

  6. Devan says:

    In Kurlansky’s bibliography, Salt came many years after Cod, with several books between the two. In fact, as I think I recall reading in Salt, it was the importance of salt in the human history of cod preparation that led him to write the salt book.

    Two others for your list: Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner; and Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, by Dominic Streatfeild.

  7. steve says:

    hi — you guys have it backward, Kurlansky wrote “Cod” in 1997, then “Salt” in 2002.

  8. M says:

    Just to clarify: you haven’t coined a term. These are usually referred to as microhistories.
    This category (or “trend,” if you prefer) includes Coffee: A Dark History by Antony Wild, The Sneaker Book: Anatomy of an Industry and an Icon by Tom Vanderbilt, and the excellent The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman (among many, many others).

  9. Rocco says:

    John McPhee’s “Oranges” deserves a mention.

  10. anon123 says:

    SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Discovered the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail by Stephen R. Bown. Published by Thomas Dunne Books 2004.

  11. martin says:

    Wild that Salt came out in 2002 since an earlier salt monohistory (Lot’s Wife: Salt and the Human Condition By Sallie Tisdale) was published in 1988.

  12. Doc says:

    The author of “The Pencil” is Henry Petroski (you left out the t) and he has done other excellent microhistories. My favorite is “The Book on the Bookshelf” (the title is a nicely layered pun). His latest is on the toothpick.

  13. Jo in OKC says:

    The Frozen Water Trade: A True History by Gavin Weightman

  14. Russell says:

    I love these kinds of books. I’d also point out three books by Mark Pendergrast – “For God, Country, and Coca-Cola,” “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World ,” and “Mirror, Mirror”. The first is pretty much a history of post civil-war American as seen through a Coke bottle. Then there’s “Emperors of Chocolate” by Joël Glenn Brenner. I could probably think of a dozen more if I worked at it.

  15. Russell says:

    Ooh, and there’s “Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History” by H.E. Jacobs.

  16. Heather MW says:

    M – We did some research while debating what to call these books and discovered that there is a very specific definition for Microhistory –
    “Rather than describing and analyzing broad topics, such as the American Civil War, microhistorians focus on specific events, such as Pickett’s Charge, which occurred within the context of broader fields of study.”

    None of the sites or definitions we found included any of the books mentioned within their bibliographies. Indeed none of them mentioned focusing on a phenomenon over time. Therefore our mono-history definition as the history of a single item rather than a single event or place.

    And thank you to everyone who mentioned the Salt/Cod reversal. It’s been fixed.

  17. matthew393 says:

    I’ll add:

    The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee

    Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

    The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson

  18. Heather MW says:

    Ohhh – I’d forgotten about The Box. Great story – well told. And have you noticed how many of these are about food? The eternal obsession.

  19. Kevin says:

    My favorite: Henry Petrovski’s _Book on the Bookshelf_, which is supposedly about the evolution of the bookshelf, but deals with libraries, reading, and literacy, through the framing mechanism of bookshelves.

  20. Kevin says:

    Then there is the Emperors of Chocolate, by Brenner, a history of the secretive world of the chocolate industry in the United States–a fun read!

  21. sharon says:

    The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, by Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer

  22. Sue Hansen says:

    I remember the title about the man who wrote the OED, it included madman in the title, but can’t exactly remember the whole title. Very good read on the background of a talented man, institutionalized with obsessive compulsive disorder.

  23. Sue Hansen says:

    In addition to doing detailed research on the inter actions of the two central figures and the last days each has on his own, author Simon Winchester tells a great deal about the building of the OED itself. (correction –the paranoid Dr. lives his entire life institutionalized for murder during the Irish Civil War).

  24. drootzler says:

    Multnomah County Library (in Portland) has a booklist related to this topic, ‘surprising histories’ –

    I don’t find the genre compelling on its own, the writing has to be good and the history genuinely interesting. Mark Kurlanskiy’s Cod was exemplary in this regard, but I found his next book, Salt, less convincing.

  25. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Mono-Histories

  26. Magnus Enger says:

    I havn’t read it (yet), but “The footnote : a curious history” by Anthony Grafton sounds pretty focused…

  27. Greg says:

    There’s also “One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw” by Witold Rybczynski.

    Dava Sobel’s Longitude set off the trend, I believe. I remember in the late-90s Penguin started actively looking for authors to follow on the success of Longitude with similar popular science/history books. The orange spine on the bookshelf really set them apart, too.

  28. Sarah says:

    To echo posters above, this is not a “new trend” – the “microhistory” publishing thing started c. “Cod”. The word itself refers to more of an academic sort of study which has been around awhile.

    In contrast, I’ve noticed some larger tomes, in addition to complete biographies such as “John Adams” and “Benjamin Franklin” – there are two out on American history periods covering approx. 1815 – 1848, for instance. Guess the Founding Fathers have been done to death. Tim Blanning also has two recent books with a large focus, one on European history 1648-1815 and a new one on the triumph of music. Microhistories are still being published – e.g. “The Invention of Air” about Joseph Priestly. But the form, or genre perhaps, isn’t the hot topic that it was several years ago.

  29. Ann says:

    I think my favorite isMichael Pollan’s “A Botany of Desire,” which (not
    quite a mono-history) relates the history of four different plant
    species–from the apple’s migration from the Caucus Mountains to the development of super potent marijuana in the hills of California.

  30. Pingback: The FREAK-est Links - Freakonomics Blog -

  31. Leah says:


    And I thought it was just me. I have creating a bibliography of these sorts of titles for the last couple of years. So far it is 12 pages long.


  32. Bob L says:

    I’m reading POX, a history of syphillis.

  33. Kevin says:

    Okay, the oddest: A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis. I read most of it in an airport a couple of years back. Imagine the look on the person’s face who casually asked, “What’cha reading?”

  34. David W says:

    Okay, Kevin, that LAST one I’m gonna check out. I confess I’d grown a little jaded with all these books that were out to convince me that, but for “THE RADISH!” or “BISMUTH!” or “THE EARWIG!” the entire course of Western Civ would be entirely different – but in the case of #33, okay, sure, THAT’s definitely had some impact on events. And, actually, that’s a pretty good flirt book for cafe reading, too. (-:

    Leah – if you’re reading this – 12 pages!!?? GIVE! Any titles that haven’t been mentioned yet that you want to share? I love these collective lists!

  35. Chris says:

    #22 Sue;
    You are thinking of _The Surgeon Of Crowthrone_ (a.k.a. _The Professor and the Madman_ ) by Simon Winchester.

  36. Scott U says:

    As someone noted, the trend hardly started with Kurlansky’s “Cod,” Petroski’s “The Pencil,” or even McPhee’s 1967 “Oranges.”

    One earlier example is Hans Zinsser’s 1935 classic “Rats, Lice, and History.” It is an immensely enjoyable history — Zinsser calls it a biography — of typhus fever, which, typical of these microhistories, turns out to have shaped wars and nations in surprising ways.

  37. KMC says:

    Would the ancestral tome be the “Debate on Iron & Salt” (~80 BC) about the policy debate over the Chinese Empire’s establishment of State monopolies on these 2 previously private enterprises???

  38. robg says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading these books (which do not concern inventions only). Others include History of the shadow (Stoichita), Curry (Collingham), Nathaniels Nutmeg (Milton), The glass bathyscaphe (Macfarlane), and my favourite of all – Barbed Wire (Razac). Waterstones in London used to have a section (albeit small) called ‘Biography of a thing’, where you could find these marvels.

    My niche favourite is microhistory books about colours. These include A Perfect Red (Amy Greenfield), Mauve (Simon Garfield), and Blue: History of a Color (Pastoureau). Pastoureau also wrote The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes, which was very good but I don’t own a copy. These are all fascinating books.

    Along the same lines, I’ve got a smatterings of ‘Books about a single year with the year in the title’ eg, 1000, 1215, 1492, 1499, and so on. And books about books. Help!

  39. meNELSON says:

    look up Bill Brown’s Thing Theory.

  40. David W says:

    Now I just have to mention the parody title featured in Steve Hely’s “How to Become a Famous Novelist,” a LOL satiric look at the book business: “CUMIN: The Spice that Saved the World.”

  41. Pingback: BOTNS Books Podcast #71: One Book, One Subject | Books on the Nightstand

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s