Microhistories - Highly Readable, In-Depth Explanations of Singular Subjects

These nonfiction books explore a specific subject, often providing a different way of looking at familiar objects, products, or events.  The best microhistories use their focus on small specifics to reveal a much larger picture. Provided by the staff at the West University Branch Library.

Bernard Asbell. The Pill: A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World
With as many twists and turns as a thriller, this biography of the birth control pill tells the story of the committed people--Margaret Sanger, Katharine McCormick, and Dr. Gregory Pincus, among others--who pioneered the its development, as well as the two scientists who defied the law to advance its research.
David Bodanis. Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricty
Bodanis weaves tales of romance, divine inspiration, and fraud through lucid accounts of scientific breakthroughs. The great discoverers come to life in all their brilliance and idiosyncrasy, including the visionary Michael Faraday, who struggled against the prejudices of the British class system, and Samuel Morse, a painter who, before inventing the telegraph, ran for mayor of New York City on a platform of persecuting Catholics. Here too is Alan Turing, whose dream of a marvelous thinking machine - what we know as the computer - was met with indifference, and who ended his life in despair after British authorities forced him to undergo experimental treatments to "cure" his homosexuality
Sophie Coe. The True History of Chocolate
This delightful tale of one of the world's favorite foods draws upon botany, archaeology, socio-economics, and culinary history to present a complete, accurate history of chocolate.
A. Roger Ekirch. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past
Nighttime--the forgotten half of history--spawned a remarkably vibrant culture with its own rules and rituals, scents, sights, and sounds. In the preindustrial age, daytime and nighttime were separate worlds--with daylight's departure people entered a dark realm of real and imagined perils. But darkness also offered people freedom from their daily lives, and multitudes drew fresh strength from the setting sun. Crime, fire, and evil spirits; navigating fields by starlight; evening gatherings to spin wool and tales; masked balls and night-cellars; magic, ancestral lore, and prayers; midnight liaisons and bundling; dissolute aristocrats and rebellious slaves; the rhythms of sleep and dreams
Robert Freidel. Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty
The zipper was invented 100 years ago by Whitcomb Judson, a frustrated man with a penchant for complexity. This book tells the fascinating story of how a useless technological novelty worked its way into daily life and took its place as one of the defining artifacts of the 20th century.
Barbara Freese. Coal: A Human History
The fascinating history of a simple black rock that has shaped the world--and now threatens it. In this remarkable book, Freese takes readers on a rich historical journey that begins hundreds of millions of years ago and spans the globe.
David G. Gordon. The Complete Cockroach: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Despised and Least Understood Creature on Earth
An exhaustive and irreverent look at our scuttling friends from a popular environmental writer, this book showcases "cockroachabilia" from throughout history to the Raid Entomology Research Lab in Michigan, where technicians breed 80,000 roaches a week.
Gianni Guadalupi. Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator
From an expert storyteller and eloquent historian comes 30 centuries of adventure on the seas and in lush tropical lands crossed by the equator.
Hannah Holmes. The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter
Hannah Holmes A mesmerizing expedition around our dusty world Some see dust as dull and useless stuff. But in the hands of author Hannah Holmes, it becomes a dazzling and mysterious force; Dust, we discover, built the planet we walk upon.
Diarmuid Jeffries. Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug
Aspirin has its earliest beginnings in the Ancient Egyptian recognition of the usefulness of Willow bark for the treatment of rheumatism. Writing for a general audience, British journalist Jeffreys examines the history of the "wonder drug" from those beginnings to the current resurgence of interest in its usefulness for a wide range of hitherto unsuspected applications. His narrative is a story of scientific accidents, commercial competition, public relations management, corporate greed, and other factors in the widespread adoption of the medicine.
Robert Kaplan. The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero
A symbol for what is not there, an emptiness that increases any number it's added to, an inexhaustible and indispensable paradox. As we enter the year 2000, zero is once again making its presence felt. Nothing itself, it makes possible a myriad of calculations. Indeed, without zero mathematics as we know it would not exist.
Jack KellyGunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards and Pyrotechnics
Gunpowder first emerged from the ancient Chinese alchemical experiments to usurp the sword, spear and arrow in war. A must-read for history fans and military buffs alike, "Gunpowder" brings together a rich terrain of cultures and technological innovations with authoritative research and swashbuckling style.
Mark Kurlansky. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
A delightful romp through history with all its economic forces laid bare, Cod is the biography of a single species of fish, but it may as well be a world history with this humble fish as its recurring main character.
Mark Kurlansky. Salt: A World History
This book takes a look at an ordinary substance--salt, the only rock humans eat--and how it has shaped civilization from the very beginning.
Penny Le Couteur. Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History
The authors present a surprising history of the world--told on a chemical continuum of why things happened rather than when. This fascinating book tells the stories of 17 molecules that, like the tin of Napoleon's coat buttons, greatly influenced the course of history.
Tom Lutz. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears
In this wide-ranging and provocative study, Tom Lutz looks at the ways people have understood weeping from the earliest known representations of tears in the fourteenth century B.C. to the tears found in today's films. Drawing on works of literature, philosophy, art, and science from the writings of Plato and Darwin to the paintings of Picasso to modern medical journals, he explores the multiple meanings and uses of tears
Peter Macinnis. Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar
Bittersweet explores the effects that sugar has had on the world. This foodstuff that we take for granted - and indulge in more than we should - has caused wars and geopolitical balances that have shaped the modern world and the power balances we see in the 21st century.
Giles Milton. Nathaniel's Nutmeg, or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History
A true tale of high adventure in the South Seas. The tiny island of Run is an insignificant speck in the Indonesian archipelago. Just two miles long and half a mile wide, it is remote, tranquil, and, these days, largely ignored. Yet 370 years ago, Run's harvest of nutmeg (a pound of which yielded a 3,200 percent profit by the time it arrived in England) turned it into the most lucrative of the Spice Islands, precipitating a battle between the all-powerful Dutch East India Company and the British Crown.
Mark Pendergrast. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed our World
From its beginnings in Ethiopia to the expansion of the Starbucks empire, the author explores the growth and nature of the coffee business. Mainly concerned with the marketing of coffee in the United States, he does touch upon coffee in Europe and social justice and health issues. Annotation copyrighted by Book News, Inc.
Henry Petroski. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance
Petroski traces its origins back to ancient Greece and Rome, writes factually and charmingly about its development, and shows what the pencil can teach us about engineering and technology today.
Mary Roach. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers-some willingly, some unwittingly-have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.
Richard Rollins. Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
The first new book in almost 40 years on the Civil War's most legendary encounter, including many previously unpublished accounts. This is the full story, told through the eyes of everyone from generals to privates.
Witold Rybczynski. One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw
The seeds of Rybczynski's elegant and illuminating new book were sown by The New York Times, whose editors asked him to write an essay identifying "the best tool of the millennium."
Charles Seife. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now, as Y2K fever rages, it threatens a technological apocalypse. For centuries the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics.
Sue Shephard. Pickled, Potted and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World
We may not give much thought to the boxes in our freezers or the cans on our shelves, but behind the story of food preservation is the history of civilization itself. The ability to preserve food was the key that liberated humans from the anxious life of the hunter-gatherer, forced to follow migrating herds or to forage for seasonal berries and leaves.
Tom Standage. The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous 18th Century Chess-Playing Machine
Standage, technology correspondent for The Economist, tells the tale of an automaton comprised of a mechanical man dressed in an oriental costume seated behind a wooden cabinet and capable of playing chess. It was built in the late 18th century by Hungarian civil servant Wolfgang von Kempelen, was a hit in the courts of Europe, was associated with noted figures ranging from Napoleon to Edgar Allan Poe, and helped inspire the computer and the detective story. Annotation copyrighted by Book News, Inc.
Robert Sullivan. Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
Love them or loathe them, rats are here to stay-they are city dwellers as much as (or more than) we are, surviving on the effluvia of our society. In Rats, the critically acclaimed bestseller, Robert Sullivan spends a year investigating a rat-infested alley just a few blocks away from Wall Street. Sullivan gets to know not just the beast but its friends and foes: the exterminators, the sanitation workers, the agitators and activists who have played their part in the centuries-old war between human city dweller and wild city rat.
Steven Vogel. Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle
In this work of popular science, Vogel (biology, Duke U.) explores the biology and physics of muscle and explains how muscle conditioned the design and use of many human tools and machines. The basic biology of muscles and the early attempts to under stand muscles form the early discussion, with later chapters talking about how various animals use muscles for a variety of tasks. The brain's control of muscle dynamics is then explored. Later chapters look at the use and design of hand tools to make muscles more efficient and muscle-powered weapons. Finally, the biology of eating animal muscle is discussed. Annotation copyrighted by Book News, Inc.
Gavin Weightman. The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story
In the tradition of "Cod" by Mark Kurlansky comes a remarkable book about a long-forgotten historical phenomenon that changed the world--the rise and fall of the natural ice industry in 19th-century North America.
Simon Winchester. The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
In 1793, William Smith, the orphan son of a village blacksmith, made a startling discovery that was to turn the science of geology on its head. While surverying the route for a canal near Bath, he noticed that the fossils found in one layer of the rocks he was excavating were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following these fossils one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped, rose and fell across the world. This is the story of his life and the history of geology.
Carolyn Wyman. Spam: A Biography
Over sixty years ago, when meat was bought from a butcher, Jay Hormel's idea for pork in a can was nothing short of revolutionary. How in the world (and why in the world) did he do it? In nine highly engaging and entertaining chapters, complete with over 200 illustrations and photos, author and Spam-fan Carolyn Wyman traces the unbelievable success story of this one-of-a-kind, all-American, all-pork product.
Stephen Yafa. Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations and Put America on the Map
At any given time everyone on earth is wearing or using something made with cotton. That's power. As fiber, oil, or seed, cotton finds its way into thousands of products from lipstick to gunpowder to crackers to money. Never a stranger to controversy, the plant that has touched off wars, inspired astonishing inventions, and laid waste to entire ecosystems now pits American growers against underdeveloped nations in a fierce struggle for survival.