Looking for interesting books about mundane topics.
January 31, 2014 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Seeking suggestions for interesting, wide-ranging books on seemingly mundane or trivial topics. Help, hive mind!

You all were so helpful in my last book recommendation hunt, I thought I'd pick your brains again.

In particular, the person I'm seeking a book for just finished and really loved The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads. He specifically loved that it seemed like a topic that couldn't possibly be worth an entire book, but that it turned out to be a fascinating read connecting all sorts of different moments in history.

He's looking for more good books in this vein, but everything he's finding is either just lists of random facts, or boringly written enough that they fail to elevate the mundane/trivial topic to the level of interest he's hoping for. He's open to any topic, but it should be seemingly unremarkable and without major significance, not books about a clearly influential topic/event that changed the world.

If it helps, the term for this seems to be "adoxography", although no one seems to know/use that word (including me), so it may not be terribly useful in finding things. I've sent him a giant list of possible microhistories, but personal recommendations are what's really called for here, to find the particularly good ones.
posted by Stacey to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 112 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Caskeum at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

My dear friend who has deep, varied and somewhat esoteric reading interests, suggests Planet in a Pebble.

If your friend has an e-reader or is willing to read in her browser, I loved Daily Life in Victorian London.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2014

John McPhee, especially in this case, Founding Fish (all about shad! And American history!), and Uncommon Carriers (all about freight trucking!). A lot of his stuff is in this vein.
posted by rtha at 12:44 PM on January 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Mary Roach, "Stiff"
posted by mmiddle at 12:48 PM on January 31, 2014

The recommendations in this ask might be useful to you.

In that thread, I recommended One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski, which is a surprisingly interesting history of the screw and screwdriver.
posted by OrangeDisk at 12:48 PM on January 31, 2014

in the small niche it was aimed at, it was an influential bestseller...

"football clock management"
posted by bruce at 12:51 PM on January 31, 2014

Interesting, though not quite enough for me to remember the title without some googling around:

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
posted by tilde at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your friend might be interested in Mary Roach's books - Stiff, Gulp, and Packing for Mars were pretty great.
posted by hepta at 1:10 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'll second Witold Rybczynski... everything he writes is intelligent and interesting.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 1:23 PM on January 31, 2014

posted by Gortuk at 1:27 PM on January 31, 2014

There are a million of these.
Here's one: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
posted by mattbucher at 1:28 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nicholson Baker's first, Mezzanine.

Also by John McPhee: Oranges
posted by Rash at 1:35 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding McPhee's "Oranges," the very model of this genre.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:43 PM on January 31, 2014

Best answer: Mauve: How one man invented a color that changed the world

I agree with anything by John McPhee (I like Looking for a Ship although that's more biographical than mundane), Mary Roach, and for food, Mark Kurlansky.

Are you looking mostly for microhistories of things? I have a shelf-full of books I think of as the "noun" shelf which sounds like what your friend is after.
posted by mgar at 3:09 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great suggestions! We chatted about this some more over dinner, so I have a follow-up to help guide future suggestions. He's very specifically looking for not just microhistories in general, but very specifically microhistories of really mundane things.

So for example the book about tea - probably interesting, but you have a general sense of the kind of things they're likely to contain as far as impact on history, social importance, etc. Whereas he's intrigued by the toothpick suggestion because he can't imagine what there could possibly be to write in a book about toothpicks.

Anything else along that line of super-super mundane/trivial stuff that someone has somehow, incomprehensibly managed to wring a good book out of, would be awesome.
posted by Stacey at 3:24 PM on January 31, 2014

Oh! Well then, Mauve, as previously suggested. (I was going to suggest that but I couldn't remember the name.)
posted by DarlingBri at 3:37 PM on January 31, 2014

posted by chiababe at 7:28 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Surprising how many of these are about food, but to add on, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread
posted by Theiform at 7:36 PM on January 31, 2014

Oh! And Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
posted by Theiform at 7:38 PM on January 31, 2014

See if you can get hold of "Life on Man", by Theodore Rosebury. It's an old (1969) book but beautifully written, about the microbes that live on and inside the human body.
posted by TristanPK at 6:50 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Zipper
posted by chrchr at 4:42 PM on February 1, 2014

Longitude is fantastic - though it may be too exciting to be considered mundane.

3rding Mauve.
posted by Mchelly at 5:03 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing Mauve. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance would probably fit the bill pretty well. Henry Petroski also wrote The Evolution of Useful Things which is basically a book full of things like that.
posted by kassila at 5:46 PM on February 1, 2014

Ugh, I totally missed someone already posted The Pencil. Well, seconded then. Also At Home.
posted by kassila at 5:55 PM on February 1, 2014

How the World was One, by Arthur C Clarke, explains international telecommunications.

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is fantastic.
posted by talldean at 7:52 PM on February 1, 2014

Best answer: So, your question reminded me of this Goodreads book list called "Microhistories -- Sweeping Social Histories Of Just One Thing" I came across a few months ago which contains hundreds of these single-subject/item history books, some more mundane than others. This veritable master list includes the phone book book you mentioned and many/most/all(?) of the suggestions offered by others, plus hundreds more. You should definitely consider sending the list along to your friend, as it seems right up his alley - he'll probably be able to find enough books detailing seemingly mundane subjects to keep him satisfied for at least the next few years..
posted by slightlyamused at 12:48 AM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't n'th 'Mauve' strongly enough.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 12:23 PM on February 2, 2014

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. This book shows some of the similarities in the rise of sugar usage and the rise of industrialism.
posted by burntbook at 8:41 AM on February 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Herring: a history of the silver darlings. Excellent social history told through fish.
posted by Rumple at 8:42 PM on February 6, 2014

Also, The Portable Radio in American Life, something of a career left-turn by respected archaeologist Michael Schiffer.
posted by Rumple at 8:45 PM on February 6, 2014

Metafilter's own Dan Koeppel writes books like this.

His first is about birds, and is called To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son and a Lifelong Obsession.
There are nearly 10,000 known species of bird on the planet and Richard Koeppel has seen over 7000 of them. But what drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? Because the price he paid was more than just financial. His relentless pursuit of birds was cause and effect of a failed marriage, the breakdown of his relationship with his son, and obtuse career decisions. Koeppel's obsession began at the age of eleven in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher and jotted down the sighting in a notebook. It became the first bird on his life list'. Several decades later, he added an astonishing 517 birds to that list on a single trip to Kenya. And that was when the list really took over. He ended the last romantic relationship he would ever have, scaled down his medical practice, and decided to see every bird on earth. In doing so he became a member of a sub-culture of competitive bird-watchers all pursuing the same goal. To See Every Bird on Earth explores the thrill of the chase, the all-absorbing crusade at the expense of all else, and travel to places exotic, dangerous and commonplace. It's also the story of obsession and how it defines us. But most of all, it's the story of a father and son and of how the very thing that pushed them apart also provide the route towards reconciliation.
His second is about bananas, and is called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.
From Publishers Weekly
The world's most humble fruit has caused inordinate damage to nature and man, and Popular Science journalist Koeppel (To See Every Bird on Earth) embarks on an intelligent, chock-a-block sifting through the havoc. Seedless, sexless bananas evolved from a wild inedible fruit first cultivated in Southeast Asia, and was probably the apple that got Adam and Eve in trouble in the Garden of Eden. From there the fruit traveled to Africa and across the Pacific, arriving on U.S. shores probably with the Europeans in the 15th century. However, the history of the banana turned sinister as American businessmen caught on to the marketability of this popular, highly perishable fruit then grown in Jamaica. Thanks to the building of the railroad through Costa Rica by the turn of the century, the United Fruit company flourished in Central America, its tentacles extending into all facets of government and industry, toppling banana republics and igniting labor wars. Meanwhile, the Gros Michel variety was annihilated by a fungus called Panama disease (Sigatoka), which today threatens the favored Cavendish, as Koeppel sounds the alarm, shuttling to genetics-engineering labs from Honduras to Belgium. His sage, informative study poses the question fairly whether it's time for consumers to reverse a century of strife and exploitation epitomized by the purchase of one banana. (Jan.)
posted by oceanjesse at 6:47 AM on February 11, 2014

Best answer: One more, available soon: Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator
posted by Rumple at 10:39 AM on February 12, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. He's really appreciating the continuing recommendations - I've marked as best answers the ones that particularly piqued his interest.
posted by Stacey at 1:21 PM on February 12, 2014

Response by poster: I feel the need to follow up and say that he's been super-immersed in the toothpick book and he keeps telling me stories about toothpicks from it and I KNOW SO MUCH ABOUT TOOTHPICKS NOW and have Metafilter to thank for that.

So...thanks again? I think?
posted by Stacey at 4:18 PM on April 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

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