October 11, 2007

Plan my fall reading

Remember when I asked you to recommend some biographies because I was thinking of writing one. Well... I might still do that... someday. But now I'm also toying with the idea of writing one of those micro-histories that have flooded the market in the last five or six years. You know, like Salt or One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw. The only thing is — you guessed it — I've only ever read one of them (Longitude). So: which ones do you like?

On this list, my idea would best fit under the "unmentionables" category, partly due to the subject matter and partly in that it doesn't really have a natural, chronological narrative. I've already ordered Stiff, which I've heard great things about. But what else? Has anyone read At Day's Close? It's not as micro as the others, but the topic interests me.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Well, since we've got to be nearing the end of the marketability cycle for micro-histories, obviously what's necessary is ... a micro-history of micro-histories.

Suggested title: How How the Irish Saved Civilization Saved Civilization.

... which, I guess, isn't actually responsive to your bleg (unless and until I write and publish that myself).

Hah. You know, I was worried about that end of the cycle business, but my agent says no.

Also, now that you mention it, I did read How the Jews are More Important Than Everyone Else, Rah! Rah! Rah!, or whatever that one was called.

Bound: How the Stapler Held Together a Nation at War

Lint: From Many, One

(Hack Jokes: Take Them, Please!)

I should point out that I will not try to make any grand claims for the importance of my subject. That trope probably is dead.

How about Steven Connor's The Book of Skin?

I really enjoyed Temperament, despite the author's occasional cutesiness and digressions. I guess it may depend on how much you like to hear about or read about music from 200-400 years ago, but for me it seems like a near-perfect example of the microhistory.

I enjoyed Copies in Seconds, by David Owens, a history of the copier and copying. Do some of the old standbys from the last century count? Michael Pollan's Second Nature, about gardening, included a lot of what you're talking about. Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine did a pretty good roundup on computing and computer design while following a Data General project.

Mercury, the toxic metal is my suggestion.

Very versatile, incredibly dangerous. (Prob know that Newton was possible victim of self-poisoning with it during his alchemical explorations.)

Longitude was amazing, from the very first page about unauthorized navigation...


and so is Napoleon Bonaparte, I think.

Go back to the original, John McPhee. Oranges and his one about the Swiss Army are brilliant. If you can get ahold of the complete New Yorker, they're both first published there.

Difficult genre to parody, isn't it? But I'll try anyhow...

Collateral Damage: The Political and Economic History of the Paper Cut

The Diode: Not As Revolutionary As The Transistor, But Still Pretty Darned Useful

War: How One Simple Little Concept Changed History

War: How One Simple Little Concept Changed History

Heh. Difficult, maybe, but you pulled it off.

The Pencil, by Henry Petroski.

Vaguely on topic: A friend of mine from a ways back does an interesting web comic which tells what might be called nano-histories.


More on topic:

"Glory: The Hole Truth"?

I liked Diane Ackerman's natural histories (love and the senses)

Looking around my desk for some new ideas:
The Blot that is Not: a history of white-out

Put that in your Go-Cup

Don't wash your kid's mouth out with Purell: the failed transition from soap and water.

The CD Case and other weapons in the War Against the Customer

If by "unmentionables", you mean undergarments, there are already books on them. If by "unmentionables", you mean "infand" or "ineffable", history abounds with such tomes.

If you are referring to "Nair Pretties", you have already mentioned them, but the subject begs a coffee table-sized book, in no less than Royal Folio, (20" x 12").

John Ellis' "A Social History of the Machine Gun" is an excellent early (1975) example.

I really liked Stiff, and also Rats; the latter had a lot of the author in it, and might be the sort of thing you're thinking of doing as you write. Also, it's got a lot of NYC history in it, so I found that fun.

Henry Petroski's been mentioned, but I read his The Book on the Bookshelf and not Pencil; I particularly enjoyed what a huge span of history he ended up covering.


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