When I tell people that I was a history major in college, I note a mild revulsion, as though I told them that I was mathematics major specialising in group theory. For most people, the study of history conjures up an endless stream of dates and dead dudes in strange old-timey clothing doing something that they’ll forget about as soon as the exam is over. I understand, but beg to differ. Sure, if your high school history teacher was anything like mine, you probably felt an exceeding torpor strike you in seventh period as he droned on about the Holy Roman Empire.
But the fact remains that, as George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Often forgotten is what he said afterward–“Those historians who remember that quote and repeat ad nauseam are condemned to be bromides”
So enough of that. Let’s talk about history that’s interesting, engaging and directly connected to your everyday life. I speak of a contemporary popular genre of history writing–the microhistory–that has dispelled the myth that all history is as dry as the Sahara. The microhistory is not a tiny history book for the nearsighted scholar; it’s a history about how a single thing or idea has shaped history in its own way or the history of one specific thing. From the salt you use to flavour your food to the number zero to your DNA, there’s a history waiting to be uncovered. Here are a few of my favorites:
Simon Garfield. Just my Type: A Book about Fonts- Everyday we type something on the computer. Ever wondered about the story behind those different styles of letters? Or are you a fontaphile who knows what such terms as kerning or sans serif mean? This book has it all, from the creation of moveable type to the creation of Helvetica and beyond. There’s more to letters than meets the eye.
Neil McGregor. The History of the World in 100 Objects- Join the author, a curator at the British Museum, beginning with stone objects made by our ancestors almost 1.6 million years ago to a contemporary solar panel and lamp, on a romp through history as told by some of its most important artefacts. The illustrations and accompanying text make this book an easy one to open at any point with a writing style that will keep you turning those pages.
Charles Seife. Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea- We take the number zero as a given, but it’s only a recent invention that required a great deal of conceptual thinking. Find out why the Egyptians didn’t have it, how the Babylonians invented it, why the Greeks were frightened by it, why the Hindus revered it, and how it became an indispensable tool in our number system. Not your typical book on maths, an easy read with those difficult ideas rendered clear for the uninitiated.
And a dvd: How Beer Saved the World- I’ve always felt that beer was important. Now I have the proof. An entertaining documentary, it explains the integral role the brew has played in the creation of civilisation.