In praise of microhistories

Clive Thompson on the appeal of microhistories:

When you drill down deeply into a single subject, you nearly always realize: Holy crap, this is more complex than I’d have thought. This is true of just about any subject, right? And it’s exactly the opposite feeling you get from a “big” book, which strives to make you feel like you understand how Everything Is Explained By This One Specific Idea. When you gloss over a subject from 50,000 feet in the air, as those big books often do, you can feel a sense of dangerous knowingness. You’ve been insulated from the gnarly details; you think you know what’s going on, but you really don’t.

In contrast, when you dive obsessively into a single, narrow subject, it humbles you about about the state of your overall knowledge. If there’s this much to know about cod — or pencils, or champagne and salt and ice and gramophones? Then you become usefully aware not of your knowledge but of your overall ignorance. You’re reminded that, as ever, that the devil’s in the details.

To paraphrase Rick from Casablanca, when it comes to history books I’m a true (small-d) democrat. I’ll take ‘em long or short, expansive or narrow. But I totally share Thompson’s love of microhistories. I just finished one recently for a book club (American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella) and have enjoyed many more, including:

  • Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair by Witold Rybczynski
  • A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon
  • The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers by Tom Standage
  • Longitude by Dava Sobel