Tuesday, February 2, 2016

History Through Objects

The idea of presenting popular history through objects got a boost from Tom Standage’s popular A History of the World in Six Glasses (Walker. 2005), which discusses human development from the Fertile Crescent, where they drank beer, to today’s Coca Cola–fueled society. The trend has really taken off lately, though, with readers who like a reference browse delighting in books that explore various aspects of our world and its history through…stuff. Collections of 100 items are particularly the rage, and are also fascinating. More than, say, six drinks, a compilation of 100 objects gives the author space to get a little whimsical or unexpected. Like any list that claims to be definitive, the chosen artifacts can spark some knotty discussions. Which items were chosen, and why? What’s missing? Which choices are odd, or expand the definition of the title?

In our experience, reading history books can sometimes be a little dry. That's why we've been enjoying these books which present history using objects (well, not all objects, exactly, some use ideas or people or what have you). For instance, one book has chosen 7 flowers and shown how they have "exerted power or influence of one kind of another, whether religious, spiritual, political, social, economic, aesthetic or pharmacological".*  Another tome has a linguist expert selecting words "that best illustrate the huge variety of sources, influences, and events that have helped to shape our vernacular".* How about "A book you can read straight through and also use in the kitchen...a perfect gift for any food lover who has ever wondered about the origins of the methods and recipes we now take for granted"?* It's an interesting take that makes history seem tangible - probably too simplistic for a scholar, but helpful for the layman. Consider:

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin 

Shakespeare's Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects by Neil MacGregor 

The Civil War in 50 Objects by Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society

A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West 

American History in 100 Nutshells by Tad Tuleja 

A History of Life in 100 Fossils by Paul D. Taylor & Aaron O'Dea

The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors by John Gribbin

Can you think of any other histories presented in this fashion? Let us know in the comments!

*all comments borrowed from book blurbs

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