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Really Specific History Books

  • Aug 26, 2010
Sometimes we like the grand scope of history, the patterns and trends that show up in history class and make things look as though there's some great plan or at least a reasonable pattern in the things people do. Sometimes, though, it's enjoyable to look at very specific bits and pieces of the great kaleidoscope of history. You get a new perspective this way, and see things that don't come up in most history books or classes.
Salt: A World History
Salt has a romantic and exotic history, and this book tells it with verve. As we learn about the particulars of salt, we discover new views of some of the great adventures of humankind.
From the delicate and difficult specialty of chefs to a delivery device for weird combinations of cottage cheese and canned goods, gelatin has come a long way. The story is presented in this book with wit and lots of pictures,
False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of
This book has a central point about how economics and history mix and mesh, and illustrates it with deep examination of some things you thought you knew -- but you were wrong. Me, too.
See the full review, "A book to open your mind".
Set Phasers on Stun: And Other True Tales of
You might not immediately think of this book as a history, but it looks at occasions in recent history when design flaws had extremely serious consequences, so it gives a view of how technical design affects our history. You'll see the world differently after reading it.
The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of
Human waste isn't a pleasant dinner table topic, but you'll be tempted to share what you learn from this book -- from the marketing miracle that made Japan the world leader in futuristic toilets to South Africa's sanitation crisis, Rose George tells all the most interesting and important things about this basic human issue.
Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
There was a time when travel meant finding new and surprising regional candies. What happened, why, and what difference does it make? This book tells you, along with evocative descriptions of the manufacturing, marketing, and enjoyment of candy bars of all kinds.
Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to
The author travels to meet interesting people and relive the amazingly emotional controversies over the way we spell words -- in the U.S. and in Britain.
See the full review, "A history of spelling. Really.".
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World
Four plants -- apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana -- provide a lens through which to explore history, science, and economics. Beautifully written and thought provoking, too.
Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America
The story of how we went from cooking ordinary plants and animals to a diet made up largely of chemical derived from corn and palm is a fascinating one, with insights into the role of women and how technology leads to unintended consequences.
Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar
Finish up with a history of the future: what the visionaries of the 20th century thought the 21st century would bring, and how completely wrong they were. The really interesting question may be why they were so wrong, and this book offers some penetrating insights into that question.

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September 07, 2010
What a wonderful list, so creative. There are quite a few on here that I would love to read!
September 07, 2010
Thank, Bethany!
September 02, 2010
This was a very fun list! Loved it! Thanks for sharing the book suggestions too. :)
September 02, 2010
Glad you liked it. :-)
August 29, 2010
This is an excellent list. Other single-topic histories that I've found surprisingly fascinating are Dava Sobel's "Longitude" and Simon Garfield's "Mauve". John McPhee's "Oranges" also deserves a mention, as he was writing this kind of book long before it became such a popular trend.
August 29, 2010
Thanks for adding -- I'll have to go read those!
August 27, 2010
How fascinating! Awesome idea for a list - thx!
August 26, 2010
Amazing, isn't it? And these are just my favorites!
August 26, 2010
I bet there are plenty out there that I just haven't heard of! I love history, so books like these on more obscure and quirky things fascinate me! And just a friendly little technical tip -- when you want to reply to a message, you should click on "reply" underneath the comment so that the recipient will get a notification about it. I only knew that you replied to my comment because I saw it in the activity feed ;) Welcome to Lunch, by the way!
August 26, 2010
August 27, 2010
My pleasure! :)
August 26, 2010
Wow, the books on this list really are specific.  Love it!  I had no idea that one could write an entire book about salt or Jell-O, but I've gotta look into these.  Thanks for sharing this great list, Rebecca!
About the list creator
Rebecca Haden ()
Ranked #387
I'm a full time web content writer, working for companies and organizations from a goat farm in Oklahoma to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. My specialty is writing for both search engines and … more
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