This is a guest post from my equally book nerdy fiancé, Jon Reed, who loves microhistory books with a passion.
I have a book about the Balkans sitting on my shelf that, as far as I can tell, is a sweeping and all-encompassing history of the region from the Middle Ages onward.
I say “as far as I can tell” because, despite repeated efforts (I have a weird obsession with reading about the Balkans), I’ve never been able to get through more than 150 or so of its 650-odd pages. It covers all the bases of a broad and intricate topic, but it seems to cover too much.
I also have a relatively short book about a specific kind of fish that I love more than I should.
When we think about what kind of subject would make a compelling nonfiction book, we tend to lean toward easy, fairly broad or well-organized subjects: The history of the Balkans, or a biography of a president, or the story of a single Civil War battle.
The best nonfiction books I’ve found, however, are often the ones where I pick the book up and say “How the hell did someone write a whole book about that?”
That’s the question I asked myself when I first saw Mark Kurlansky’s Cod at our local used bookstore. I like fish. I like books about nature. I don’t know much about cod, specifically, except that if you surround a fillet with beer batter, fry it and put it on a tortilla with some toppings and a spicy cream sauce, it’s delicious.
I didn’t know the quest for cod was what led Europeans to the coast of North America before the Pilgrims landed. I didn’t know the role the cod industry played in the creation of modern Iceland. I had no idea about the ebbs and flows of the commercial fishing industry, and its impact on the people of Atlantic Canada. I also had no idea the things could grow that big.
(Kurlansky has a bunch of related books, including one about salt, which is closely tied to cod, one about Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was a hub of the trade, and a history of the Basques, who were major players.)
Another book I found on a topic I didn’t know much about was Fur, Fortune and Empire by Eric Jay Dolin. At the time I checked out the audiobook from the library, my knowledge of the fur trade stretched little further than knowing that beavers were involved.
So you may be wondering: how can you look at history through the lens of one obscure, specific issue like that?
Pretty well, actually. I learned a little about beavers, less about clothes and a lot about how and why Europeans settled North America. It got bogged down a bit in the machinations of the Massachusetts settlers, but it also offered a glimpse of American history from an angle I never would have expected. (There’s also a neat bit about Russian exploration of the Pacific Northwest.)
These books took a very specific angle to tell a broader story of history. It’s a theme I’ve seen in sports books, too. Take Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights for example. You pick it up because you want to read about a high school football team. You stay for the discussions of school segregation, the booms and busts of the oil industry, and how a town copes with both.
So next time you see a book about something obscure and specific and wonder how someone could possibly write a whole book about that one topic, don’t dismiss it. Open it up and find out. You might be pleasantly surprised.