What are microhistory books?

Have you ever heard of microhistories? If you’re a fan of captivating nonfiction, microhistories might be for you. These books dive into a single subject, examining closely different aspects of that single area. They can cover any nonfiction topic. The connection between microhistories is that intense focus on any single subject. I was introduced to microhistories when I found Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.  Roach’s books are a perfect example of microhistories. In her many books, she writes about nature and law, cadavers, science and sex, the alimentary canal, the science of humans at war, and so much more – each book covering one of those topics! Wanting more beyond Roach, I gathered a list of microhistories published from 2020 to present.

Below you will find a list of microhistories that are currently available at the Davenport Public Library (bonus: we haven’t talked about these yet on the blog). Descriptions have been provided by the publisher and/or author.

The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans by William Scott Hammack

For millennia, humans have used one simple method to solve problems. Whether it’s planting crops, building skyscrapers, developing photographs, or designing the first microchip, all creators follow the same steps to engineer progress. But this powerful method, the “engineering method”, is an all but hidden process that few of us have heard of—let alone understand—but that influences every aspect of our lives.

Bill Hammack, a Carl Sagan award-winning professor of engineering and viral “The Engineer Guy” on Youtube, has a lifelong passion for the things we make, and how we make them. Now, for the first time, he reveals the invisible method behind every invention and takes us on a whirlwind tour of how humans built the world we know today. From the grand stone arches of medieval cathedrals to the mundane modern soda can, Hammack explains the golden rule of thumb that underlies every new building technique, every technological advancement, and every creative solution that leads us one step closer to a better, more functional world. Spanning centuries and cultures, Hammack offers a fascinating perspective on how humans engineer solutions in a world full of problems.

A book unlike any other, The Things We Make is a captivating examination of the method that keeps pushing humanity forward, a spotlight on the achievements of the past, and a celebration of the potential of our future that will change the way we see the world around us.

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Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History by William Alexander

The tomato gets no respect. Never has. Stored in the dustbin of history for centuries, accused of being vile and poisonous, appropriated as wartime propaganda, subjected to being picked hard-green and gassed, even used as a projectile, the poor tomato is the Rodney Dangerfield of foods. Yet, the tomato is the most popular vegetable in America (and, in fact, the world). It holds a place in America’s soul like no other vegetable, and few other foods. Each summer, tomato festivals crop up across the country; John Denver had a hit single titled “homegrown Tomatoes;” and the Heinz tomato ketchup bottle, instantly recognizable, is in the Smithsonian.

Author William Alexander is on a mission to get tomatoes the respect they deserve. Supported by meticulous research but told in a lively, accessible voice, Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World will seamlessly weave travel, history, humor, and a little adventure (and misadventure) to follow the tomato’s trail through history. A fascinating story complete with heroes, con artists, conquistadors and, no surprise, the Mafia, this book is a mouth-watering, informative, and entertaining guide to the good that has captured our hearts for generations.

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The Urge: Our History of Addiction by Carl Erik Fisher

As a psychiatrist in training fresh from medical school, Carl Erik Fisher found himself face-to-face with an addiction crisis that nearly cost him everything. Desperate to make sense of his condition, he turned to the history of addiction, learning that our society’s current quagmire is only part of a centuries-old struggle to treat addictive behavior.

A rich, sweeping account that probes not only medicine and science but also literature, religion, philosophy, and public policy, The Urge introduces us to those who have endeavored to address addiction through the ages and examines the treatments that have produced relief for many people, the author included. Only by reckoning with our history of addiction, Fisher argues, can we light the way forward for those whose lives remain threatened by its hold.

The Urge is at once an eye-opening history of ideas, a riveting personal story of addiction and recovery, and a clinician’s urgent call for a more nuanced and compassionate view of one of society’s most intractable challenges.

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The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison by Hugh Ryan

This singular history of a prison, and the queer women and trans people held there, is a window into the policing of queerness and radical politics in the twentieth century.

The Women’s House of Detention, a landmark that ushered in the modern era of women’s imprisonment, is now largely forgotten. But when it stood in New York City’s Greenwich Village, from 1929 to 1974, it was a nexus for the tens of thousands of women, transgender men, and gender-nonconforming people who inhabited its crowded cells. Some of these inmates—Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, Afeni Shakur—were famous, but the vast majority were incarcerated for the crimes of being poor and improperly feminine. Today, approximately 40 percent of the people in women’s prisons identify as queer; in earlier decades, that percentage was almost certainly higher.

Historian Hugh Ryan explores the roots of this crisis and reconstructs the little-known lives of incarcerated New Yorkers, making a uniquely queer case for prison abolition—and demonstrating that by queering the Village, the House of D helped defined queerness for the rest of America. From the lesbian communities forged through the Women’s House of Detention to the turbulent prison riots that presaged Stonewall, this is the story of one building and much more: the people it caged, the neighborhood it changed, and the resistance it inspired.

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Seven Games:  A Human History by Oliver Roeder

Checkers, backgammon, chess, and Go. Poker, Scrabble, and bridge. These seven games, ancient and modern, fascinate millions of people worldwide. In Seven Games, Oliver Roeder charts their origins and historical importance, the delightful arcana of their rules, and the ways their design makes them pleasurable.

Roeder introduces thrilling competitors, such as evangelical minister Marion Tinsley, who across forty years lost only three games of checkers; Shusai, the Master, the last Go champion of imperial Japan, defending tradition against “modern rationalism”; and an IBM engineer who created a backgammon program so capable at self-learning that NASA used it on the space shuttle. He delves into the history and lore of each game: backgammon boards in ancient Egypt, the Indian origins of chess, how certain shells from a particular beach in Japan make the finest white Go stones.

Beyond the cultural and personal stories, Roeder explores why games, seemingly trivial pastimes, speak so deeply to the human soul. He introduces an early philosopher of games, the aptly named Bernard Suits, and visits an Oxford cosmologist who has perfected a computer that can effectively play bridge, a game as complicated as human language itself.

Throughout, Roeder tells the compelling story of how humans, pursuing scientific glory and competitive advantage, have invented AI programs better than any human player, and what that means for the games—and for us. Funny, fascinating, and profound, Seven Games is a story of obsession, psychology, history, and how play makes us human.

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Did those sound interesting? Want more? The below titles were released in 2021 or before. Let us know your favorite microhistory in the comments!

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization by Edward G Slingerland

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz

The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger

Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am by Julia Cooke

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

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