Journey Through the World With These Peculiar Microhistories

Ashley Holstrom

Staff Writer

Ashley Holstrom helps make books at Sourcebooks. She lives near Chicago with her cat named after Hemingway and her bookshelves organized by color. Newsletter: Crooked Reads. Twitter: @alholstrom.

Ah, the microhistory. Is there a better type of book than the one that, when you tell people what you’re currently reading, causes the asker’s eyebrows to raise into their hairline and/or eyeballs to pop out of their sockets? I didn’t think so. The most popular list of microhistories on Goodreads is titled “You Read a Book about WHAT?” and that really sums it up nicely. 

A microhistory is a fun little sub-genre of nonfiction where the microscope is pointed on a minor facet of history. Why look at the history of capitalism and consumerism as a whole when you can instead focus on the wonder of the suburban shopping mall? Where’s the fun in a comprehensive study of medicine when you can read about the snake oil salesmen who sold rat poison as an aphrodisiac? 

In this collection of peculiar microhistories, we’ll lead you on a journey through the genre, from quaint studies of lighthouses and getting drunk to bone-chilling histories of dentistry, bad medical experiments, and books bound in real human skin. Hopefully you’ll learn something new that’ll help you win your next round of pub trivia or make your eyes pop out — but only in a metaphorical sense.

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera book cover

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera, Translated by Christina MacSweeney

I’ve never met a lighthouse I didn’t want to know more about. Jazmina Barrera dives into these beautiful structures that signal “people are here” throughout history and literature. On Lighthouses is both beautiful memoir and riveting literary history — all about finding a light. 

Pipe Dreams by Chelsea Wald cover

Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet by Chelsea Wald

Pipe Dreams is my favorite kind of microhistory: The one I didn’t know I desperately needed in my life. Chelsea Wald chronicles the taboo history of toilets without shying away from the bad parts — like disease and privilege and water waste — and shining a light on the scientists, engineers, and activists who are working toward a new, more accessible kind of sanitation. 

Smile Stealers by Richard Barnett cover

Smile Stealers: The Fine and Foul Art of Dentistry by Richard Barnett

Bet you never thought you’d find a book about your favorite place on earth. Smile Stealers is a chronology of the horrifying history of dentistry — from dentures and smiles in photographs to its use in forensics — complete with illustrations of tools and techniques to make your face hurt. Medical historian Richard Barnett doesn’t hold anything back in this fascinating book. 

cover of Meet Me By the Fountain by Alexandra Lange

Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange

Is there a better place than the mall? They inspired works by George Romero and Joan Didion, as well as many a teenage nightmare. Today they stand as a dystopian relic of in-person consumerism. Alexandra Lange explores the invention and legacy of the modern shopping mall, from architecture to community, in Meet Me by the Fountain

Why We Swim cover

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

It sounds obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: Humans aren’t natural-born swimmers. We have to be taught, first as a means of survival, and now as fun and sport. Why We Swim follows swimmers around the world, from Olympic champions to a fisherman who survived a six-hour swim after a shipwreck. Bonnie Tsui is a swimmer herself, making her the perfect person to dive into what it is that draws us to water. 

Drunk by Edward Slingerland cover

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization by Edward Slingerland

The history of drinking can get a little blurry, what with tales of bacchanals and pouring one out for the homies, but Edward Slingerland sets it straight in Drunk. Using all forms of science, medicine, and history, as well as literature — of course — he breaks down what it is that draws humans to love alcohol and how it can maybe even be good for us. Even more than that are tales of fruit flies, fish, and crows who are known to imbibe. 

quackery book cover

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen

Wild medical history is simultaneously the best and worst. Quackery takes a look at 67 real-life cures that were not actually cures. Like giving morphine to crying babies (yikes) or consuming tapeworms to lose weight (no thanks). Lydia Kang’s wit shines in this romp through bizarre medical experiments and scams through the ages. 

cover image for Dark Archives

Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom

We saved the best for last. Did you know there were books bound in human skin? Megan Rosenbloom, a librarian and journalist, tells the tales of these books and the humans that brought them into the world. Dark Archives is both a scientific history and a forensic journey as Rosenbloom’s team tests books to see what they’re made of. 

If you find yourself in need of more microhistories, look no further: here’s a list of ten and another of four to tickle your fancy.