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Muppets, Memes, Music, and More: 8 Compelling Modern Cultural Histories

Elisa Shoenberger


Elisa Shoenberger has been building a library since she was 13. She loves writing about all aspects of books from author interviews, antiquarian books, archives, and everything in between. She also writes regularly for Murder & Mayhem and Library Journal. She's also written articles for Huffington Post, Boston Globe, WIRED, Slate, and many other publications. When she's not writing about reading, she's reading and adventuring to find cool new art. She also plays alto saxophone and occasionally stiltwalks. Find out more on her website or follow her on Twitter @vogontroubadour.

award-winning independent publisher Rowman & Littlefield

Former head of Universal Music Russia, David Junk, takes us on a riotous and thrilling ride through post-Soviet chaos as he brings music giants like Metallica and Eminem to Russian audiences. From gangsters to divas, Junk hurls us headlong into a whirlwind of corruption, violence, and pageantry, chronicling his industry battles and artist breakthroughs, including t.A.T.u.'s rise to global stardom. This wild odyssey reveals music's power to shatter boundaries.

Muppets in Moscow? Hip-hop? Chinese restaurants? What do these all have in common? Each is the subject of recently published modern cultural history books. Each cultural history gives you a window into the past and present about everyday phenomena like food, music, or fashion.

I remember the awe when I first encountered Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which is a world history focused on what humans like to drink over the centuries. It gave me a window into everything from social movements to the economics and politics of different parts of the world. I hadn’t really encountered anything quite like it but I wanted more.

Since then I’ved dived into these topics, which have led me to unexpected places like the history of Mexican food in the US in Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America or a comprehensive history of the Moon from the Deep Time to the present day in Rebecca Boyle’s Our Moon: How Earth’s Celestial Companion Transformed the Planet, Guided Evolution, and Made Us Who We Are.

So for this article, I’ve compiled a list of eight recently published modern cultural histories from Muppets, space, and memes. I’ve tried to make it a global list, but many of the recently published cultural histories are focused on the U.S. 

Dr. Space Junk book cover

Dr. Space Junk v. the Universe: Archaeology and the Future  by Alice Gorman

When we think of archaeology, we think of Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece. Dr. Gorman turns that on its head when thinking about the material culture of space from the past 60 years, including everything from the astronaut footprints on the moon and the debris floating around the Earth to the abandoned buildings that were critical to space exploration. It’s also a global look at the Space Age, including some discussion of Australia’s role in space exploration. 

Cosmonaut book cover

Cosmonaut: A Cultural History by Cathleen S. Lewis

I may be a little space-obsessed right now, but there are so many good books recently published on the topic! Lewis dives into the cultural and political meanings of the cosmonaut from the 1950s to the present day. Exploring material cultures and political propaganda, she weaves in how the Soviet government used the images of its cosmonauts, including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, throughout Soviet history to present-day Russia. 

Muppets in Moscow book cover

Muppets in Moscow by Natasha Lance Rogoff

This book will blow you away with the incredible story of bringing Sesame Street to Russia, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rogoff writes about her experience of working with her colleagues and Russian counterparts to tackle the challenge of designing Sesame Street for Russian children during the uncertain years in the early 1990s filled with assassinations, bombings, and so much more. It’s also a great book for folks who love Sesame Street and want to learn more about its inner workings.

Taste Makers book cover

Tastemakers: Seven Immigrant Women who Revolutionized Food in America by Mayukh Sen

Now, let’s take a journey into U.S. food culture in Sen’s fascinating work. The U.S. has come a long way in the development of its rich culinary scene. In the mid-20th century, Italian food was considered exotic. Sen explores how seven immigrant women played a significant role in changing how Americans eat. Many of these names may be new to readers, but you’ll never forget how important these chefs were to what we think of as everyday food today. 

Black Meme book cover

Black Meme: a History of the Images that Make Us by Legacy Russell

We use memes everyday often to visualize our emotions, often including images from popular culture. Russell argues that memes are more than silly cat photos and cartoon clips. She dives into the rich political and racial meaning of the meme, going back to the 1900s through the present day. Black Meme focuses on representations of Blackness, from violence against Black people epitomized in lynching postcards and the video of the LAPD beating Rodney King to the creation of the Black icon, and so much more.

Fashion Killa book cover

Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion by Sowmya Krishnamurthy

It seems obvious that the worlds of fashion and hip-hop would be intertwined, but Krishnamurthy’s book shows that it was anything but. Through interviews, she brings out the stories of hip-hop creators and fashion world leaders to explore how hip-hop reinvented the world of fashion and American culture as a whole.

Major Labels book cover

Major Labels: A History Of Popular Music In Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh

In Kelefa Sanneh’s monumental work, he dives into a history of seven popular musical styles in the past 50 years: country, dance-music, hip-hop, pop, punk, R&B, and rock. The work explores how these styles inform our own sense of selves, our communities, and the music medium itself. It’s a story about what is good, what is authentic and how the answer to those questions change.

Smashing Statues book cover

Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments by Erin L. Thompson

Thompson’s work strives to understand why people are so concerned about public statues and why do some people get venerated in bronze while others don’t. She explains the history behind some of the controversial statues, both from the perspective of the contentious person memorialized and the history of putting up the statue in the first place. It’s also a meditation on how we move forward with public statues if we are striving to make amends.

Hopefully these books will give you all a greater insight into part of recent history to explain the world today. If you want more books covering modern cultural history, check this article about 10 cultural histories of the U.S. or this list of microhistories.