Histories of Things: What Next?
posted by Daniel Solove
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.
But 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.
There 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.
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.
For 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.
What 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.