Histories of Things: What Next?

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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”.