Summer is here, and that means Winnipeggers will be heading out to our fantastic beaches to relax on the sand. As we build our sand castles and try to keep all those tiny grains from getting onto our towels, it’s interesting to reflect how we are surrounded by trillions of grains of sand that have come together to create the beaches that we enjoy. If you scoop up a handful of sand, each of those tiny grains will have its own source and story. As such, a microhistory is a genre of book that rather than looking at the beach as a whole, finds one grain of sand and tells its story, and in doing so often reveals the story of the beach as well.
This metaphor might be a bit laboured, but microhistories are fantastic reads and I’ve highlighted six that would make a great addition to your next trip to the beach.
Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History is an in-depth look at the history of paper and how the invention of paper changed the world. It sounds dry but Kurlansky brings the subject to life and shows how paper as a piece of technology will not be left behind by the digital devices that are now ubiquitous to modern life.
If you like Paper: Paging Through History, Kurlansky has written a number of other excellent microhistories that you can check out at the library. His best known work is Salt: A World History, but Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell are also cracking reads that trace the impact of these foods on history.
Olive Oil has become a common kitchen ingredient in modern cooking, but do we really know what’s in the bottle in our kitchen? If you are interested in dramatic stories of true crime and delicious descriptions of mouth-watering food, then Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller is the microhistory for you. This title explores the history of olive oil, and dives into the worldwide corruption involved in it’s trade.
In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson looks at everyday objects that fill the typical modern home, exploring the history of how they wound up there. These ordinary objects are vehicles for the story of how our homes became comfortable refuges from the outside world. Bryson is a gifted writer and he infuses his books with fascinating details and a dry humor.
Heading in the opposite direction from our comfortable homes on earth and straight into the challenges of space, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach examines all the different questions that need to be answered before NASA can safely send astronauts into space. From the physical to the psychological Roach leaves no question unanswered. Packing for your summer vacation will seem like a breeze after you read Packing for Mars.
In Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers, the reader is taken on a tour across the world exploring the current science of distillation and the thousands of years of history and culture behind the alcoholic drinks consumed around the world. This book is for a reader that wants to know all about the scientific and technological details that combine to get a drink into your glass.
If Rogers hasn’t completely slated your thirst for alcohol related literature, try A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. Proof: The Science of Booze focused on the science of alcohol and A History of the World in 6 Glasses takes on the historical side of the story, using six common drinks (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and soda) to trace the development of modern civilization.
If these books have piqued your interest, there are many more microhistories waiting for you at Winnipeg Public Library.