As an avid fiction reader, I never had much interest in non-fiction—that is, until I discovered microhistories. Microhistories are the social histories of very specific topics. They tend to be about things that we take for granted because they are so ingrained in everyday life.
In the last few years, I’ve become a huge fan of this style of non-fiction because microhistories usually have a more narrative, easy-to-read structure. It’s also fun to discover the history that surrounds us that we don’t even notice. You can find books about so many weird and wonderful things.
The first microhistory that I ever read was Banana: the fate of the fruit that changed the world by Dan Koeppel, a book that explores the history of the banana and how it has left its mark on the world and how we left our mark on it. “In this fascinating and surprising exploration of the banana’s history, cultural significance, and endangered future, award-winning journalist Dan Koeppel gives readers plenty of food for thought. Fast-paced and highly entertaining, Banana takes us from jungle to supermarket, from corporate boardrooms to kitchen tables around the world. We begin in the Garden of Eden—examining scholars’ belief that Eve’s ‘apple’ was actually a banana—and travel to early-twentieth-century Central America, where aptly named ‘banana republics’ rose and fell over the crop, while the companies now known as Chiquita and Dole conquered the marketplace. Koeppel then chronicles the banana’s path to the present, ultimately—and most alarmingly—taking us to banana plantations across the globe that are being destroyed by a fast-moving blight, with no cure in sight—and to the high-tech labs where new bananas are literally being built in test tubes, in a race to save the world’s most beloved fruit.” —publisher
Another microhistory I was particularly interested in was Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? : the epic saga of the bird that powers civilization by Andrew Lawler—and not just because of the great title! I’d never really thought about the origins of the chicken before, but it’s a very interesting story. The chicken originates from the red jungle fowl, a bird that is apparently so high-strung that some of them actually die when picked up. It’s hard to imagine how the relatively docile chicken has changed so much, but if you are interested to learn how, this is the book for you.
“Throughout the history of civilization, humans have embraced it in every form imaginable—as a messenger of the gods, powerful sex symbol, gambling aid, emblem of resurrection, all-purpose medicine, handy research tool, inspiration for bravery, epitome of evil, and, of course, as the star of the world’s most famous joke. In this book, science writer Andrew Lawler takes us on an adventure from prehistory to the modern era with a fascinating account of the partnership between human and chicken—the most successful of all cross-species relationships.” —publisher
But microhistories aren’t always about things of obvious importance. To demonstrate just how small an item featured in a microhistory can be, there is The Toothpick: technology and culture by Henry Petroski. “Celebrating the extraordinary aspects of the simplest of implements, a fascinating and quirky history of the toothpick ranges from ancient Rome to the present day, examining the ubiquitous item in its various forms and designs, its colorful applications through time, and the modern toothpick manufacturing industry.” —publisher
Microhistories can also be about events, some of them painful, like Topsy: the startling story of the crooked-tailed elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American wizard, Thomas Edison by Michael Daly. This book is about an act of cruelty in which an elephant was killed to discredit a competitor. It turns out that Thomas Edison is one of the worst things that could happen to an elephant, which is not how most people remember the famous inventor. The book paints a picture of the treatment of animals at the time, showing that many elephants were mistreated. It is a fascinating read but brings up a very sad point in history. “Describes how a circus elephant named Topsy was electrocuted in 1903 with 6,600 volts of alternating current as proof that it was much more dangerous than direct current in an ongoing dispute between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.” —publisher
The list of microhistories can go on and on. Have you read any that you really enjoyed?