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A Whole Lot of Fascination in A Little Bit of History
Posted on September 11, 2018
by Amy H
For those overwhelmed by the massive span of scientific and cultural history, there are microhistories …
Microhistories are intensive, tightly focused narrative histories that drill down into the importance, impact and/or influence of one very specific event, individual or thing (for lack of a better word!) on the world. Historian Charles Joyner further defines it as aspiring to “[ask] large questions in small places.” Try one of these on for size …
“Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything” by Lydia Kang
What won’t we try in our endless quest for perfect health, beauty, and discovering the fountain of youth? Ranging from the merely weird to the outright dangerous, here are dozens of outlandish, morbidly hilarious “treatments”—conceived by doctors and scientists, by spiritualists and snake oil salesmen (who literally did try to sell snake oil)—that were predicated on a range of cluelessness, trial and error, and straight-up scams. With vintage illustrations, photographs, and advertisements throughout, “Quackery” seamlessly combines macabre humor with science and storytelling to reveal the historically disturbing side of the ever-evolving field of medicine and sure-fire “cures.”
“The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century” by Kirk Wallace Johnson
A rollicking true-crime adventure and a captivating journey into an underground world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers. In 2009, American Edwin Rist broke into a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. The Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin’s obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins and escaped into the darkness. Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist, and he was inspired to investigate the strange case. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s relentless pursuit of justice, “The Feather Thief” is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man’s destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.
“The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization” by Vince Beiser
After water and air, sand is the natural resource that we consume more than any other–even more than oil. Every concrete building and paved road on Earth, every computer screen and silicon chip, is made from sand. From Egypt’s pyramids to the Hubble telescope, from the world’s tallest skyscraper to the sidewalk below it, from Chartres’ stained-glass windows to your iPhone, sand shelters us, empowers and inspires us. It’s the ingredient that makes possible our cities, our science, our lives–and our future. And, incredibly, we’re running out of it. Beiser shares the amazing story of why sand is so crucial to modern life. Along the way, readers encounter world-changing innovators, island-building entrepreneurs, desert fighters, and murderous sand pirates. The result is an entertaining and eye-opening work, one that is both unexpected and involving, rippling with fascinating detail and filled with surprising characters.
“Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick” by David Frye
Frye tells the epic story of history’s greatest manmade barriers, from ancient times to the present. It is a haunting and frequently eye-opening saga—one that reveals a startling link between what we build and how we live. A masterpiece of historical recovery and preeminent storytelling, “Walls” is alternately evocative, amusing, chilling, and deeply insightful as it gradually reveals the startling ways that barriers have affected our psyches. The questions this book summons are both intriguing and profound: Did walls make civilization possible? And can we live without them?
“Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology” by Lisa Margonelli
Award-winning journalist Margonelli investigates the environmental and economic impact termites inflict on human societies in this fascinating examination of one of nature’s most misunderstood insects. Are we more like termites than we ever imagined? The enigmatic creatures collectively outweigh human beings ten to one and consume $40 billion worth of valuable stuff annually—and yet, in Margonelli’s telling, seem weirdly familiar. What begins as a natural history of the termite becomes a personal exploration of the unnatural future we’re building, with darker observations on power, technology, historical trauma, and the limits of human cognition, turning up astounding facts and raising provocative questions. Is it possible to think without having a mind? Can we harness the termite’s properties to change the world? In exploring the termite, we wind up learning more about ourselves and what it means to be human.
“Seaweed Chronicles: a World at the Water’s Edge” by Susan Hand Shetterly
Glimpse the wonders of a hidden world in this beautiful tribute to a little-known resource and remote costal area of our country. An ancient, and vital part of nature’s ecosystem, seaweed is now emerging as an increasingly important source of food in a world faced with diminishing natural resources. Acclaimed nature writer Susan Hand Shetterly opens a window into the world of this fascinating organism by providing an elegant, often poetic look at life on the rugged shore of the Gulf of Maine. Shetterly offers a close look at the life cycle of seaweed, and introduces us to the men and women who farm and harvest it—and their increasingly difficult task of protecting this critical natural resource against forces both natural and man-made.
It’s a culinary catalyst, an agent of change, a gastronomic rock star. Ubiquitous in the world’s most fabulous cuisines, butter is boss. Here, it finally gets its due. After traveling across three continents to stalk the modern story of butter, award-winning food writer and former pastry chef Elaine Khosrova serves up a story as rich, textured, and culturally relevant as butter itself. From its humble agrarian origins to its present-day artisanal glory, butter has a fascinating story to tell. With tales about the ancient butter bogs of Ireland, the pleasure dairies of France, and the sacred butter sculptures of Tibet, Khosrova details butter’s role in history, politics, economics, nutrition, and even spirituality and art.
“Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World” by Aja Raden
As entertaining as it is incisive, here is a raucous journey through the history of human desire for what is rare, and therefore precious. What makes a stone a jewel? What makes a jewel priceless? In this brilliant account of how eight jewels shaped the course of history, jeweler and scientist Aja Raden tells an original and often startling story about our unshakeable addiction to beauty and the darker side of human desire. Masterfully weaving together pop science and history, Raden explains what the diamond on your finger has to do with the GI Bill, why green-tinted jewelry has been exalted by so many cultures, why the glass beads that bought Manhattan for the Dutch were initially considered a fair trade, and how the French Revolution started over a coveted necklace. Studded with lively personalities and fascinating details, here is the remarkable story of our abiding desire for the rare and extraordinary.
“Rain: A Natural and Cultural History” by Cynthia Barnett
The story of rain begins four billion years ago with the torrents that filled the oceans, and builds to the storms of climate change. It weaves together science—the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains—with the human story of our ambition to control rain, from ancient rain dances to the 2,203 miles of levees that attempt to straitjacket the Mississippi River. “Rain” is also a travelogue, taking readers to Scotland to tell the surprising story of the mackintosh raincoat, and to India, where villagers extract the scent of rain from the monsoon-drenched earth and turn it into perfume.
Now, after thousands of years spent praying for rain or worshiping it; burning witches at the stake to stop rain or sacrificing small children to bring it; mocking rain with irrigated agriculture and cities built in floodplains; even trying to blast rain out of the sky with mortars meant for war, humanity has finally managed to change the rain. Only not in ways we intended. As climate change upends rainfall patterns and unleashes increasingly severe storms and drought, Barnett shows rain to be a unifying force in a fractured world. Too much and not nearly enough, rain is a vital resource we share, and this is a book for everyone who has ever experienced it.
“Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells” by Helen Scales
Marine biologist Helen Scales shows how seashells have been sculpted by the fundamental rules of mathematics and evolution; how they gave us color, gems, food, and new medicines. Members of the phylum Mollusca are among the most ancient animals on the planet. Their shells provide homes for other animals, and across the ages, people have used shells as trinkets, as a form of money, and as powerful symbols of sex and death, prestige and war. After surviving multiple mass extinctions millions of years ago, mollusks and their shells still face an onslaught of challenges, including climate change and corrosive oceans. But rather than dwelling on all that is lost, Scales emphasizes that seashells offer an accessible way to reconnect people with nature, helping to bridge the gap between ourselves and the living world. “Spirals in Time” shows why nature matters, and reveals the hidden wonders that you can hold in the palm of your hand.
“The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America” by Langdon Cook
Within the dark corners of America’s forests grow culinary treasures. Chefs pay top dollar to showcase these elusive and beguiling ingredients on their menus. Mushroom hunters, by contrast, are a rough lot. They live in the wilderness and move with the seasons. Motivated by Gold Rush desires, they haul improbable quantities of fungi from the woods for cash. Langdon Cook embeds himself in this shadowy subculture, reporting from both rural fringes and big-city eateries with the flair of a novelist, uncovering along the way what might be the last gasp of frontier-style capitalism. Rich with the science and lore of edible fungi—from seductive chanterelles to exotic porcini—The Mushroom Hunters is equal parts gonzo travelogue and culinary history lesson, a rollicking, character-driven tour through a world that is by turns secretive, dangerous, and weirdly American.
“Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World” by Simon Garfield
“Mauve” is the story of a man who accidentally invented a color, and in the process transformed the world around him. Throughout history, the color in objects and clothing came from nature, harvested from insects or mollusks, roots or leaves, and dyeing was painstaking and expensive. But in 1856 eighteen-year-old English chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to mass-produce color in a factory. Working on a treatment for malaria, Perkin found mauve by chance. His experiments failed to result in artificial quinine as he had hoped, but produced instead a dark oily sludge that happened to turn silk a beautiful light purple.
Mauve became the most desirable shade in the fashion houses of Paris and London, and quickly led to crimsons, violets, blues, and greens, earning its inventor a fortune. But its importance extends far beyond ballgowns. Before mauve, chemistry was largely a theoretical science. Perkin’s discovery sparked new interest in industrial applications of chemistry research, which later brought about the development of explosives, perfume, photography, modern medicine, and today’s plastics industry. With great wit, scientific savvy, and historical scope, Simon Garfield delivers a fascinating tale of how this accidental genius set in motion an extraordinary scientific leap.
“Underground: a Human History of the Worlds Beneath our Feet” by Will Hunt
Will Hunt is an urban adventurer who has explored caves and catacombs, subway systems, ghostly mines, and all varieties of holes in the ground. He’s tracked down people who, for one reason or another, have shared his underground fixation.
“Underground” is a place of overlapping, often contradictory associations: It is a space that evokes death and burial even as it is a place of origins; it fills us with primordial dread, even as we seek refuge there in times of strife; we dig in search of riches and we bury our most toxic waste. It is a spawning ground for political insurgence and the place governments hide their most sensitive secrets. We excavate in search of scientific truth even as we recognize it as the ultimate wellspring of mythology, magic, and spirits.
Hunt explores Paris underground, the famous network of underground dwellings in Turkey, and the hallowed caves of the Australian outback; he spelunks eight thousand feet into abandoned mines in South Dakota with NASA scientists and experiments with time alone in absolute darkness. This is an elegantly written, thought-provoking excursion into both the deepest recesses of the earth and the primal longings of the human psyche.
Very Short Introductions by Oxford University Press
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