Histories of Things: What Next?

A new genre of history book seems to have become immensely popular. These books attempt to chronicle the histories of various things or objects. While some look interesting, I think they are starting to proliferate at an excessive pace. Pretty soon, there will need to be a book called A History of Historical Books About Things. Anyway, this post was prompted by a new book in this genre that I think demonstrates that it is going too far.

book-hist-salt.JPGBut first, let’s start our journey elsewhere; I’ll save the best for last. There are countless histories of various foods and seasonings. There’s Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History. If a history of salt is too narrow a topic for you, you can read Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of a Temptation. There’s also Larry Zuckerman’s The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. Betty Fussell has written a history of corn called The Story of Corn. And then there’s Iain Gately’s Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. Mort Rosenblum has helped us better understand the olive in historical context in Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.

book-hist-cod.JPGThere are histories of various seafood. Mark Kurlansky has also written Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.

Some more histories of things include Barnaby Conrad’s Absinthe: History in a Bottle and Dominic Streatfeild’s Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography. There’s Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay.

There are histories of wine, including Rod Phillips’s A Short History of Wine and Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade by Thomas Pellechia. But why stop at just a history of wine? How about Charles Sullivan’s Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine? If wine isn’t your drink, you can read Jessica Warner’s Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason. And to wake up in the morning after it all, there’s Coffee: A Dark History by Antony Wild or The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen or Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast.


book-chocolate.jpgFor chocolate lovers, there’s Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe’s A True History of Chocolate. It’s a “true” history, not to be confused with the fictional histories. But one history of chocolate certainly wouldn’t be decadent enough, so you can also read Mort Rosenblum’s Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light.

There are histories of various colors: A Perfect Red : Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield; Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau; Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield; and Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay.

book-hist-toothpick.jpgWhat can we learn from all these books? Here are a few themes:

1. No object seems unworthy of a book devoted to its history . . . or two . . . or three. . .

2. Nearly every thing, food, object, drink, etc. changed the world or transformed civilization.

Had enough already? Well, topics for histories are running out apparently, for I just discovered one that tops them all off — a book about the history of the toothpick: Henry Petroski’s Toothpick: Technology and Culture. Petroski also wrote a history of the pencil: The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.

I think that this genre is starting to grasp at straws. No . . . wait . . . I’m sure that there are books in the works entitled: The Straw: A History of the First Grasp to the Last and The Straw Man: A Biography.

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12 Responses

  1. Belle Lettre says:

    Wonderful post!

    I do entirely too much meta blogging, but how meta would it be to write the History of Historical Books About Histories.

    I wish the Straw Man would write his own autobiography–he should defend himself every once in a while.

  2. geoff says:

    You’ve missed one of the best, and surely earliest, of these. And this one can actually lay claim to a degree of significance the others probably can’t match. Plus it’s an excellent book:

    6,000 Years of Bread: It’s Holy and Unholy History, by H.E. Jacobs, originally published in the 1940s.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I’m surprised you missed Maggie Paley’s The Book of the Penis (2000), although not purely historical, it seems emblematic of the phenomenon under discussion.

    In any case, I agree that this genre may be petering out, even if I do find some of the subjects quite interesting (salt, especially, but coffee as well). Of course this extreme nominalist swing in historical writing is the absolute converse of grand, universalistic narratives that were often tied–directly or by implication, by design or default–to this or that form of political imperialism and, later, neo-colonialist cultural posturing or aspirations. The world is immensely more complex than one or two generations ago and few are the number of courageous souls willing to write anything remotely resembling histories of the old school or sort. And yet there are plenty of works of history betwixt and between these two extremes to keep us occupied long into the night. (I’ve resisted the temptation to compose a reading list…at least this time ’round.)

  4. Bruce Boyden says:

    I seem to be one of the few thinking, Wow, those books all sound pretty interesting!

  5. Greg says:

    The Footnote: A Curious History

    The Devil’s Details: A History of the Footnote*

    “*Being a concise and definitive account of the footnote from its murky birth to its fertile middle years to its endangered present, beset as it is by careless writers and indifferent editors and thoughtless readers and penny-pinching publishers; an account, moreover, enhanced by copious documentation, enlightened by countless quotations from wise councilors, lightened by many passages of delightful humor, and yet entirely unafraid of either controversy or sex.”

    I think I win.

  6. Katie McBride says:

    I agree with Bruce. I read an advance copy (galleys) of THE TOOTHPICK, and it was terrific. You should give it a look — Petroski can make anything interesting. And his PENCIL book (back 1988, I think) has become a cult classic and paved the way for this genre.

  7. Deven says:

    Try a History of the World in Six Glasses. It covers beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coke.

  8. greglas says:

    Like Bruce, I’m a big fan of the genre.

  9. Don’t get me wrong, I like the genre too. I just think it might be getting a bit too excessive.

  10. A.J. Sutter says:

    You could say the genre was inspired Wm. Blake, who spoke of seeing the universe in a grain of sand. And there’s precedent for considering how toothpicks are used — historical sociologist Norbert Elias wrote at length on the importance of table manners in the history of civilization. Petroski is a well-known civil engineering professor who’s written a lot about the engineering profession, not just about objects. (He also wrote a history of books and bookshelves, BTW.) Writing about “anonymous” objects has some scholarly precedent in Siegfried Giedion’s “Mechanization Takes Command”. “Mauve” is in this technology sub-genre too, BTW, since it’s about the birth of the modern chemical industry.

    The straw and Straw Man remarks are cute, but really, what’s the problem? If these books get people to appreciate how much small objects contribute to our culture, or to see how deeply natural substances and creatures are interconnected with our lives, is that such a bad thing?

    It’s more striking that so many of the books are about food, and that these books are popular. What’s the significance? Does it mean that for all our advances, our fixations are still pre-Neolithic?

  11. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Here’s one I think might interest most of us: Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The rise, fall, and deadly persistence of the product that defined America (New York: Basic Books, 2007). I learned of it via a wonderful review by the eminently intelligent Raymond Tallis in the Times Literary Supplement, Sept. 28, 2007, No. 5452.

  12. Jason says:

    A.J. Sutter’s comment (“If these books get people to appreciate how much small objects contribute to our culture, or to see how deeply natural substances and creatures are interconnected with our lives, is that such a bad thing?”) hits closest to what I think is the key to my resistance to the idea that these books are “over-proliferating”. The point of such a book is not really to give the history of the toothpick or the rat (Robert Sullivan’s wonderful book) or coffee as to use those objects as a lens through which to view some aspect of history or culture. The books may be more or less successful at achieving this, but I think it’s at least as lofty a goal as “grand, universalistic narratives”.