Small World

Chatty and accessible, biographies of ordinary objects make big claims

The time has come, just as the walrus said it would, to talk of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. Potted histories of objects — biographies that reveal the socio-political importance of seemingly ordinary items — are currently flooding the literary marketplace. “Just recently, we’ve had books telling aspects of the world’s history through, let’s see, gunpowder, nutmeg, tea, glass, coffee, sugar, ice cream,” reports Paul McNally of Vancouver’s McNally Robinson Booksellers and head of the Canadian Booksellers Association. “I could go on.”

One man is to blame, er, credit for this trend: American author Mark Kurlansky. His 1997 success, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, mixed history, recipes and reportage into a surprising page-turner, moving from the fish-rich 1600s to the depleted present. His equally successful follow-up, Salt: A World History (2002), was even more ambitious, beginning in prehistory and ending with the shaker on your table.

These biographies have been hailed (and mocked) by publishing insiders as the books that launched a thousand further proposals. One megastore in New York recently reserved an entire table for the genre, with tomes on the ostensibly world-altering effects of alcohol, cellphones, bees, chloroform, germs, handkerchiefs, quinine and rockets. “Who Knew?” the sign on the table read. Through the grapevine, I’ve heard of Canadian writers toiling away on a history of slingshots (working title, presumably, The Slingshot Heard Round the World), cleaning products and terroir (the earth underlying vineyards).

Gunpowder. Salt. Fair enough. But hold on a minute. Handkerchiefs? Quinine? The contrast between the micro focus of these books and the ever more macro claims made on their behalf is getting stark. Three recent entries in this now crowded field constitute an entire sub-genre: histories of the colours red, blue and even mauve, as in Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That — wait for it — Changed the World. (In a nutshell — and that’s what we’re always talking about here — mauve was one of the first wholly artificial hues created in a laboratory, and it experienced a vogue in Victorian England.)

Less ridiculous are the claims made in two books by Nova Scotia-based writer Marq de Villiers about the centrality of water and wind. The latter is the readable, recently released Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather. It contains the genre’s usual hodgepodge of myth (references to Odysseus bagging the winds), memoir (how the author almost got blown off a pier in Capetown), scientific history (Aristotle, Francis Bacon and meteorological theories) and current-day narrative (how Hurricane Ivan was born in the Sahara, then grew as it crossed the Atlantic and blustered up the Atlantic coastline to shake the shutters of de Villiers’s home).Why so many attempts (with apologies to William Blake) to see the world in a grain of sand — or, as here, through a gust of wind? And, why now?

Collectively, these books organize knowledge à la Google, clustering together disparate bits of information all relating to a narrow search term. In this way, the books reflect a reshuffling of the way we think about our past, reorganizing the reams of data on which our civilization is built into bite-sized chunks. They also provide an accessible, often tangible, way in to bigger subjects. As critic David Carr recently commented in the New York Times, “Why scale four-volume accounts of the French Revolution, if a single topic, be it fire or a Fender bass [guitar], is able to serve as a can opener on the broad sweep of history?” Kurlansky’s Salt, for instance, takes us on a whistle-stop tour of all the great empires, traipsing the many miles from Babylon through Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, France and England to America.

Essentially, we’ve tired of big — we prefer lots of appetizers to one entree. Observers track our growing interest in the small to a seminal 1963 lecture by meteorologist Edward Lorenz to the New York Academy of Sciences, when he posited that a seagull can affect global weather patterns with one flap of its wings. (He later preferred to attribute such patterns to the even more nano butterfly wing flap.) And so, the triumph of these books — at least the better ones — rests on the intrinsic charm of useless snippets. After a week of immersion, I feel somehow better for knowing that when lightning hits a beach it can leave behind a tube of glass; that miners in Durnberg, Poland in the far-off 17th century carved an underground chapel out of rock salt, complete with white crystalline sculptures of saints, columns, even a chandelier; that ancient Egyptian beers had names ranging from the high-faluting (the Beautiful and the Good, the Joy Bringer), to the unpretentious (the Fermented, the Plentiful).

However, many of these works are like the dinner guest who starts out well on a chosen subject, but then drones on and on. One aggravated reader of Glass, Paper, Beans, Leah Hager Cohen’s 1997 exploration of the elements of her Sunday morning ritual, rants online: “Cohen ends this book with the words: ‘Everywhere you rest your eyes invisible stories blossom.’ Well, in this book, it is her intention to tell you every possible story about every possible thing and person that relates to... her having a cup of coffee and reading the Sunday paper....How much is enough?”

Indeed. As Cohen herself writes: “It does not matter that this book is about coffee and a newspaper and a drinking glass. It could have been about a shoelace, a nail clipper, jam. A postage stamp, garlic, an ice-cube tray. All these things are commodities and they all contain stories encompassing geography, raw materials and market forces and people.” As Karl Marx (another droner) was fond of pointing out, in advanced capitalist societies the products get separated from their origins; these books help us reconnect commodities to their sources. But really, how much is enough?

Me personally, I’m waiting to hear back from my agent on Consider the Toupee: Hairpieces that Changed the Course of History.

Alec Scott writes about the arts for CBC.ca.