Books: specific events/topics that still give broader history
September 4, 2017 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Not quite sure how to phrase exactly what I'm looking for, but I'll give it a shot. I just read Hue 1968, which focuses on a specific battle in the Vietnam War. However, the book still gives broad color around the war, what led to it, aftermath, etc., despite not trying to be a history book about the entire Vietnam War. In essence, it's a very engaging and interesting way to learn about a topic through a narrow lens that turns out to be not so narrow. What are some other books that focus on a specific subject/event/person, yet effectively give a broader history?

Apologies for the long-winded question but I'm not sure how else to explain what I'm looking for. Happy to clarify more if needed! Also, this doesn't have to be specific to a battle or a war. I'm broadly interested in all types of history - different eras, events, etc. For example, it could be a biography of a key figure in the Renaissance that leaves the reader with a pretty good idea of the Renaissance more broadly (note - not asking for that specifically - just a random example that came to mind). Thanks for any ideas and let me know if I can clarify!
posted by rastapasta to Education (16 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 is, as the title suggests, about one summer. However, it covers Lindbergh and early flight efforts, Babe Ruth, flagpole sitting, Al Capone, a flood of the Mississippi, politics, the original Ponzi scheme and the motion picture industry (among other things).
posted by hydrobatidae at 2:25 PM on September 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I read The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square because I was interested in the history of New Orleans, but it turned out to be one of the best books I've ever read about the transatlantic slave trade. It also has a lot of really interesting information about the historical relationship between the Gulf states and the Caribbean. I'd highly recommend it.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:27 PM on September 4, 2017

Salt: a world history by Mark Kurlansky is pretty much the platonic ideal of the kind of book you're looking for...also almost any of his other books too.
posted by sexyrobot at 2:47 PM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

This might be too broad for you, but Wild Swans is a history of 20th century China through the stories of women in the author's family. The author begins with her grandmother's life, then her mother's, then her own. It is magnificent.
posted by FencingGal at 3:54 PM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Dreadnought" and "Castles of Steel" are two books by Robert K. Massie which are about the arms race in the European Navies through the 19th and early 20th centuries, as steel navies transitioned from coal to fuel-oil, but also went through the evolution urged by the conflicts of those times, most particularly leading up to the development of HMS Dreadnought, which wasn't the first Battleship, but was such a revolutionary innovation on the line that to this day, all battleships either came before Dreadnought, were contemporaries to her, or came after her. Battleships now range from "pre-Dreadnoughts" to the most-recent "super-dreadnoughts" like Yamato and Iowa and their classes.

Massie follows in particular the affairs of the Royal families of England and Germany and the leadership of both nations, as well as the RN Lord Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher, so-called Father of the Dreadnought, who is pretty well second only to Lord Nelson in terms of Great Men of the RN. As the first book ends, the events are set into motion for WWI, and so the second book is an account of the war almost exclusively from a Naval perspective, battle after battle told in detail, but barely a mention of Verdun or the Somme-- just the Naval stuff: Jutland (the biggest battleship battle that'll probably ever happen), Graf Von Spee's flight across the Pacific ending at Coronel and Falkland Islands, the Naval battle of Gallipoli that lead to the disastrous charge on land. I loved them, and they're very readable for being very fat books.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:00 PM on September 4, 2017

Two that I think pair well: Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture is a book about department stores that's also about the invention of consumer capitalism, and The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism is a book about the advertising industry in the '60s that's also about how capitalism co-opting counterculture.
posted by box at 4:01 PM on September 4, 2017

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is technically about H. H. Holmes but also is about the World's Fair in Chicago and is an interesting look at America in the late 1800s.
posted by hepta at 4:36 PM on September 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

David Stahel's Kiev 1941 is very much like this for WWII; you'll learn a huge amount about the Eastern Front (and will in fact know more about it than most people who haven't read Stahel, who upends a lot of received wisdom).
posted by languagehat at 6:01 PM on September 4, 2017

Oh, and how could I forget the book I'm reading at this very moment, Yuri Slezkine's The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, which views the entire history of the Soviet Union through the stories of the inhabitants of a single (very large) building across from the Kremlin. (Of course, it's a thousand pages long, so it's definitely a commitment of time, but it's well written and full of unexpected insights.)
posted by languagehat at 6:05 PM on September 4, 2017

The Return of Martin Guerre.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:25 PM on September 4, 2017

Herodotus does this a lot; the Histories is framed around the Persian war, but he digresses enough to tell all the world history he can think of.

Jim Lovell's Apollo 13 book tells quite a bit about the space program (and Lovell's life) while talking about the mission.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:56 PM on September 4, 2017

Anything by John McPhee. His Oranges was my gateway.
posted by Rash at 9:28 PM on September 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding John McPhee, who is a wonderful writer whether or not you have a particular interest in what he's writing about. Also maybe Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time, which is about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during WWII and gives a fairly broad view beyond the Roosevelts per se?
Don't know if it is what you have in mind but if you like diaries/letters etc., you might also look up some of the Mass Observation collected diaries from WWII in England (sorry, I am narrow in my historical periods...), edited by among others Simon Garfield, Sandra Koa Wing, and Dorothy Sheridan, which are a good view of the time/place through a variety of eyes and are also unbelievably fun to read.
posted by huimangm at 4:47 AM on September 5, 2017

A Midwife's Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. (Excerpt available here.)

Each chapter begins with a short passage from Martha Ballard's diary, sometimes just a single sentence. Ulrich then proceeds to unpack those few words, setting out the contexts and implications, and noting things Ballard didn't bother mentioning because she took them for granted. I learned something about what it was like to be alive in Ballard's time, and also a lot about what a really competent historian can do.
posted by Weftage at 8:48 AM on September 5, 2017

Oh yeah, John McPhee is a genius. He's also quite the writer of short essays, so you can read those to see if you get his style before committing to a full book. Oranges is short and a quick read, but his dazzling prose style can obscure the fact that it's actually quite dense. I'd recommend the first essay in Uncommon Carriers, about long-haul truckers, as a starting point. I ate at a restaurant across the street from the library after checking it out, and I literally sat in this restaurant for an hour after finishing my meal because, even though I'd already read and enjoyed McPhee, I literally could not put it down.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:54 AM on September 5, 2017

Stephen Puleo's Dark Tide is about Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919, but it touches on a ton of what was going on in America and the world. War, labor, immigration, terrorism, xenophobia, corporatism, etc. It's really good, too.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:04 AM on September 5, 2017

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