Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new. Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.
Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
We take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.
Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
This book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.
The Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.
Digital Retro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.
The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.
Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.
So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.