To See the World in a Grain of Salt

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To See the World in a Grain of Salt

Microhistory Books Looking at Small Things With Big Impacts

Naturally, it’s important to study the grand, sweeping moments of history and analyze why they were so eventful—they were grand moments for a reason, after all. But it can be equally enlightening to practice microhistory, the study of a smaller unit of research, often a single person, family, event or village in excruciating detail so as to extrapolate larger questions about history, humanity and social change during a particular period. As William Blake put it, “to see the world in a grain of salt.” Here are a few titles that take a micro-historical approach to some strange and fascinating untold tales of our shared past.
 
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
In the Heart of the Sea brings to new life the incredible true story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex - an event as mythic in its own century as the Titanic disaster, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick. In 1820, the 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, it was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, made for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three tiny boats. During 90 days at sea under horrendous conditions, the survivors clung to life as one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease and fear. At once a literary companion and a page-turner that speaks to the issues of class, race and man's relationship to nature that permeate the works of Melville, In the Heart of the Sea tells an account of ordinary men undergoing an extraordinary ordeal, and a detailed portrait of the lost, unique community of Nantucket whalers. Impeccably researched and beautifully told, the book delivers the ultimate portrait of man against nature, drawing on a remarkable range of archival and modern sources, including a long-lost account by the ship's cabin boy.

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Veteran scholar Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and the story behind this strange little mineral 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 full of interesting facts, amusing asides and witty anecdotes that will entertain as much as it educates.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
Masterfully researched and eloquently written, The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of psychosis, genius and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand definitions. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane, imprisoned for murder.  The unlikely friendship that sprung up between the two men is chronicled here with riveting insight and detail, the celebration of a gloomy life brightened by the devotion to a quiet, noble task that feels like something out of a Dickens novel.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Oddly compelling and often hilarious, Stiff is an 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. They've tested France's first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way. In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries--from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors' conference on human composting. The engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
A riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow, The Ghost Map is a thought-provoking read that is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. In the summer of 1854, London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure -- garbage removal, clean water, sewers -- necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time. Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories and interconnectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, the rise of cities and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in today. Hypochondriacs—you’ve been warned.