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Books About Stuff

Posted by samgr on January 7, 2007

So I’ve discussed this with my father — and I’m sure that I’m not the first to talk about it — but I’m interested in the recent publishing trend of writing histories of a particular substance.

I feel like I started seeing a huge surge in this sort of thing sometime after the publication of Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. I’ve also recently noticed similar recent books about wine, tea, coffee, gold, jade, amber, clay, coal, and ink. (I’ll link to these books on Amazon if I have time and can find them and didn’t make any of them up.) So I guess publishers and authors both think that now is the time that the American public wants to read books about stuff. I would also postulate that the rise of the “stuff”biographies matches up pretty neatly with the decline of the “number” biographies. We had a spate of those a few years earlier — pi, e, I think there were two or three about zero (and zero about two or three). I for one support this shift; I think histories of stuff are probably generally more interesting than histories of numbers. Also, almost by definition, a history of a basic kind of stuff is probably going to be able to cover a wider swath of history than a number like “e”, which people have only been able to pin down or understand for a certain period of time. I would also argue that the stuff bio is a slightly different phenomenon than the straight-up “food-related organism” bio, which has also been around/popular for a bit longer: cod, potatoes, oysters, and so on (cannabis?).

But I wonder why the stuff bio has taken off recently. Is there anything about our present historical moment that predisposes us to like reading about stuff? Are these authors acting as apologists for materialism? Is stuff taking the place of ideas? You could make an argument that this kind of book reflects a rise of commodity fetishism in our society, as discussed by Marx. This doesn’t necessarily make the books non-interesting, though.

So what books do we predict will be next? Oil seems like a no-brainer. A search on Amazon reveals a couple books dealing with different facets of the history of petroleum, but nothing quite as universal as what I’m envisioning. I also think that [CENSORED] is pretty neat, and would like to know more, although Melville has also written at least a chapter I think. How about mercury? Concrete? Plastic? Come to think of it, I’m hereby officially calling dibs on [CENSORED]. No-one write about [CENSORED].

[Note: I decided that my substance idea was good enough that I’m actually not letting anyone else know about it. See if you can guess though!]

And now for the secondary point, which is harder to pin down; but I am absolutely CONVINCED that it’s true. Why are there about seven hundred novels called The [OCCUPATION’S] Daughter? The problem of course is that I can’t think of specific examples right now. But I know that it’s the case! Actually the one that springs to mind is a fictional novel: in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, I think that Grady Tripp’s successful first book was called The Arsonist’s Daughter. But there’s also The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Preacher’s Daughter, Firework-Maker’s Daughter, and I know that there are more and better-known ones than these. Actually, mucking around on Amazon (a) appears to to totally disprove my theory, but also and hilariously (b) shows that there is a very Christian-oriented series about the Amish that follows this model: the Daughters of Lancaster County.

Of course there are things like Galileo’s Daughter and Rasputin’s Daughter, but that is something still different. Also, in book titles it may be all about daughters, but in horror movies everything is pretty patrilineal. Whom would you put your money on in Son of Dracula v. Galileo’s Daughter? I’m genuinely not sure.

Please comment, what kind of stuff do you want to write about? Whose daughter?

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3 Responses to “Books About Stuff”

  1. Roxie said

    Although I love studying intellectual history, I like books about stuff (AND books about numbers, for that matter). It’s important to recogonize how certain commodities can change in value over time. This is one of the things I enjoy pondering when I’m helping make historic recreation sets for movies. There may be objects or substances that we are only used to seeing out of context, perhaps on display in a museum. But at one time they may have been more useful or at-hand, or even more important to daily life. How do stuff-historians do their research? Is “Salt” or “Gold” just a vehicle for a freewheeling exploration of history across thousands of years (like “Salt manufacturing was relevant in India. Now let me talk about Ghandi and British Colonialism for 20 pages”) or are the commodities treated as characters throughout history, that need to be broken apart and scrutinized before they can be understood.

  2. samgr said

    This is a really good set of questions. The short answer is I don’t really know, but I assume it depends on the book. My dirty little secret is that I haven’t really read many of these books; I read Salt and Cod and Pi and one of the zero ones, and that’s about it. Salt was pretty good, although I think it actually did suffer from the sort of thing you describe: in other words, “let me talk about things that touch on salt and I think are interesting” coming after some discrete introductory sections that talk about why salt is so important to analyze in the first place. The two different kinds of writing aren’t necessarily as unified as they might be.

  3. Roxie said

    I forgot about Pi ! That’s basically the coolest book ever. The author has MAJOR beef with the Roman Empire, mostly because they burned the library at Alexandria.

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