The first time I read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, I was blown away. Kurlansky manages to turn a book about an everyday object—one that you and I have seen in every kitchen, every restaurant, and on every table we’ve ever sat down to eat at, throughout our lives—into an utterly fascinating page-turner. I was hooked and have since reread Salt many times and moved on to his other microhistory books, like Cod, Paper, and the latest Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas. Funny and endlessly fascinating, all of these books have interesting stories, historic recipes, and enough facts to make any reader “Did you know?” royalty.
And Kurlansky’s books are just the tip of the iceberg! There are so many great microhistories, ranging from subjects like butter and cotton to champagne and the color indigo. Check out this list of 50 must-read microhistory books for hours of enjoyment.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
“It is the subject of countless poems and paintings; the top of the weather report; the source of the world’s water. Yet this is the first book to tell the story of rain. Cynthia Barnett’s Rain begins four billion years ago with the torrents that filled the oceans, and builds to the storms of climate change. It weaves together science—the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains—with the human story of our ambition to control rain.”
Broliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature by Marion Rankine
This book is absolutely delightful! “Brolliology is a beautifully designed and illustrated tour through literature and history. It surprises us with the crucial role that the oft-overlooked umbrella has played over centuries—and not just in keeping us dry. Marion Rankine elevates umbrellas to their rightful place as an object worthy of philosophical inquiry . . . She tackles the gender, class, and social connotations of carrying an umbrella and helps us realize our deep connection to this most forgettable everyday object—which we only think of when we don’t have one.”
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit
“Drawing together many histories—of anatomical evolution and city design, of treadmills and labyrinths, of walking clubs and sexual mores—Rebecca Solnit creates a fascinating portrait of the range of possibilities presented by walking. Arguing that the history of walking includes walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning, Solnit focuses on the walkers whose everyday and extreme acts have shaped our culture, from philosophers to poets to mountaineers.”
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert
“The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Sven Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.”
Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden
“As entertaining as it is incisive, Stoned is a raucous journey through the history of human desire for what is rare, and therefore precious. What makes a stone a jewel? What makes a jewel priceless? And why do we covet beautiful things? In this brilliant account of how eight jewels shaped the course of history, jeweler and scientist Aja Raden tells an original and often startling story about our unshakeable addiction to beauty and the darker side of human desire.”
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
I can’t resist a Crate and Barrel or a Williams Sonoma. If you’re the same way, then this book is for you. A fascinating and fun history of the tools we use in the kitchen, and how these tools “have also transformed how we consume, and how we think about, our food. In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson takes readers on a wonderful and witty tour of the evolution of cooking around the world, revealing the hidden history of objects we often take for granted.”
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky
“The codfish. Wars have been fought over it, revolutions have been spurred by it, national diets have been based on it, economies and livelihoods have depended on it, and the settlement of North America was driven by it. To the millions it has sustained, it has been a treasure more precious than gold. Indeed, the codfish has played a fascinating and crucial role in world history. Cod spans a thousand years and four continents . . . Mark Kurlansky introduces the explorers, merchants, writers, chefs, and of course the fishermen, whose lives have interwoven with this prolific fish.”
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
The big one from Mark Kurlansky. If you’re only going to read one book from this list, it should arguably be this one. “The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions. Populated by colorful characters and filled with an unending series of fascinating details, Salt is a supremely entertaining, multi-layered masterpiece.”
Those are just some of the great books that made my list. Check this post out in full on Book Riot.