Books That Explain Why the World Is the Way It Is

How Carrots Won the Trojan WarHave you noticed that there have been numerous books published in the last few years about how a certain number of objects have changed history, explain such-and-such, or shaped the world we live in? I’ve compiled a list of some of them, and want to share that list with you. In some cases I will write about the books while in others I may use a quote from a book’s blurb or from a review. I will also include the number of reviews that each has garnered on the Amazon website, and the number of stars (from 1 to 5) that each book has been awarded. You may be surprised at how many reviews books that are unfamiliar to you have received. I know I was.

The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor – This is the only book on the list that I’ve read so far. MacGregor begins with a mummy from about 240 BC and proceeds in chronological order to a solar powered lamp. It is well written and the 100 images (plus occasional additional detailed images of some of the objects) were spectacular in my e-book version. There is an image at the start of each chapter, and I remember wondering how some of the objects chosen could possibly fit into MacGregor’s story. But they did. (164 customer reviews and 4.4 out of 5 stars)

History of the World in 1,000 Objects by DK Publishing – DK’s books are always a visual pleasure because of the rich colors of the drawings and photographs. Note that this book is quite heavy: 6.1 pounds. “From the watch Napoleon used to synchronize with his generals at Waterloo and Chinese David vases believed to be the oldest example of blue and white porcelain to the US Constitution and the Mayan Dresden codex, the oldest book written in the Americas, History of the World in 1,000 Objects provides a completely fresh perspective on the history of the world. With objects revealing how our ancestors lived, what they believed and valued, and how these items helped shape civilization, History of the World in 1,000 Objects contains a treasure trove of human creativity from earliest cultures to the present day. Objects are grouped chronologically, under key themes, from art to the history of technology, and together help paint a unique picture that provides detailed insight into each culture.” (51 customer reviews and 4.9 out of 5 stars)

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage – “Starred Review. Standage starts with a bold hypothesis—that each epoch, from the Stone Age to the present, has had its signature beverage—and takes readers on an extraordinary trip through world history. The Economist‘s technology editor has the ability to connect the smallest detail to the big picture and a knack for summarizing vast concepts in a few sentences. He explains how, when humans shifted from hunting and gathering to farming, they saved surplus grain, which sometimes fermented into beer. The Greeks took grapes and made wine, later borrowed by the Romans and the Christians. Arabic scientists experimented with distillation and produced spirits, the ideal drink for long voyages of exploration. Coffee also spread quickly from Arabia to Europe, becoming the ‘intellectual counterpoint to the geographical expansion of the Age of Exploration.’ European coffee-houses, which functioned as ‘the Internet of the Age of Reason,’ facilitated scientific, financial and industrial cross-fertilization. In the British industrial revolution that followed, tea ‘was the lubricant that kept the factories running smoothly.’ Finally, the rise of American capitalism is mirrored in the history of Coca-Cola, which started as a more or less handmade medicinal drink but morphed into a mass-produced global commodity over the course of the 20th century. In and around these grand ideas, Standage tucks some wonderful tidbits—on the antibacterial qualities of tea, Mecca’s coffee trials in 1511, Visigoth penalties for destroying vineyards—ending with a delightful appendix suggesting ways readers can sample ancient beverages. 24 b&w illus.” – Publishers Weekly (435 customer reviews and 4.3 out of 5 stars)

A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton – “Maps, both ancient and current, can reveal more than hard, physical facts such as rivers, mountains, and lines of latitude and longitude. They can also indicate the perceptions and biases of the cartographers and the cultures in which they labored. That is a recurring theme throughout this striking collection of maps, ranging from a world map based on Ptolemy’s second-century CE calculations, to a current Google Earth map. The maps and excellent commentaries that accompany them illustrate, of course, the advances of scientific knowledge about the earth. But they also show how these creators were influenced by their ethnocentric views and the political pressures of various interest groups. For example, a map from medieval Europe shows the Far East as a land under the sway of cannibals and outcasts, while a Chinese map portrays lands to the west controlled by savages. This is a stimulating and thought-provoking study of how the mixing of science, politics, and even religion influenced and continues to influence cartography.” – Booklist (35 customer reviews and 4.0 out of 5 stars)

A History of New York in 101 Objects by Sam Roberts – “A wooden water barrel and an elevator brake. A Checker taxicab and a conductor’s baton. An oyster and a mastodon tusk. Inspired by A History of the World in 100 ObjectsThe New York Times’ Sam Roberts chose fifty objects that embody the narrative of New York for a feature article in the paper. Many more suggestions came from readers, and so Roberts has expanded the list to 101.” (16 customer reviews and 4.4 out of 5 stars)

The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin – “Starred Review. [Smithsonian Institution Undersecretary for History, Art, and Culture] Kurin [has] done a masterful job. Even… well-known items have surprising and significant back stories. Unexpected selections… make the book even more engrossing, and… can make for some emotional reading. Kurin does a terrific job of expanding upon the story of each object, whether it’s a pair of slave shackles or a damaged door from one of the New York City fire trucks that responded to 9/11. This humanistic approach to storytelling makes for immersive, addictive reading.” – Publishers Weekly ( 59 customer reviews and 4.7 out of 5 stars)

Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson – “Women who use birth control pills probably care more about their effectiveness than about how they actually work, and although ignorance here may be bliss, it also cheats one of a good science story, involving a driven chemist making a serendipitous discovery about cortisone. Le Couteur and Burreson roll out 17 episodes selected for their salience in affecting health as well as history at large. This pair of chemists doesn’t overinterpret a particular chemical as a historical influence but makes speculating on, say, piperene, a sporting diversion. Piperene is the molecule that causes taste buds to sting from pepper. Venice had a monopoly on the pepper trade, which rivals wished to break, motivating the voyages of discovery. Although connections frame the authors’ tales (the title refers to tin buttons, which contributed to Napoleon’s defeat in Russia), each story dwells on its molecular protagonist. The authors diagram the formula and shape of each, from the polymer behind the sheen in silk to the ionic bonds in the taste of salt. Well-conceived, well-done popular science.” – Booklist (152 customer reviews and 4.6 out of 5 stars)

How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables by Rebecca Rupp – “How Carrots Won the Trojan War is a delightful collection of little-known stories about the origins, legends, and historical significance of 23 of the world’s most popular vegetables. Curious cooks, gardeners, and casual readers alike will be fascinated by these far-fetched tales of their favorite foods’ pasts. Readers will discover why Roman gladiators were massaged with onion juice before battle, how celery contributed to Casanova’s conquests, how peas almost poisoned General Washington, and why some seventeenth-century turnips were considered degenerate.”  (58 customer reviews and 4.4 out of 5 stars)

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the World by Steven Johnson – I have not read Johnson’s book yet, but I saw the PBS series that is based on it. His six innovations have to do with glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light. Using “cold” as an example, he talks about how freezing food has allowed us to preserve food for long periods of time. Air conditioning is also discussed in this section of the book. While he presents air conditioning as something good, he also notes that it has allowed us to create vast cities in arid regions such as the southwestern United States. The problem with that is that there is a shortage of water there that can lead to unfortunate situations such as what we see in California and other areas of the southwest today. He has obviously put a lot of thought into what he has written, and he makes us think more deeply about the unexpected consequences – both good and bad – of our innovations. (390 customer reviews and 4.5 out of 5 stars)

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik – “Ever wonder how concrete is made? Why chocolate gets white spots when it heats up then cools down again? What makes diamond and graphite, two allotropes of carbon, behave so differently? Miodownik (materials and society, Univ. Coll. of London; Computational Materials Engineering) answers all of these questions and more through relating his personal experiences with each type of material. The author explores the worlds of the grandiose as he watches the construction of the Shard in London, Europe’s tallest building; and the miniscule, as he examines how small pores can lead to fractures in terra cotta, but similar fractures can be stopped in plaster (like that in a cast) by applying it over cloth. Miodownik introduces enough chemistry to explain, as his title suggests, the stuff that matters, but relates the science in such a way that the book should be accessible to all readers. ­VERDICT Recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the materials that make up the world around them.” —Library Journal, STARRED (283 customer reviews and 4.5 out of 5 stars)

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – “As the title suggests, bestselling author Bryson (In a Sunburned Country) sets out to put his irrepressible stamp on all things under the sun. As he states at the outset, this is a book about life, the universe and everything, from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens. ‘This is a book about how it happened,’ the author writes. ‘In particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.’ What follows is a brick of a volume summarizing moments both great and curious in the history of science, covering already well-trod territory in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics and so on. Bryson relies on some of the best material in the history of science to have come out in recent years. This is great for Bryson fans, who can encounter this material in its barest essence with the bonus of having it served up in Bryson’s distinctive voice. But readers in the field will already have studied this information more in-depth in the originals and may find themselves questioning the point of a breakneck tour of the sciences that contributes nothing novel. Nevertheless, to read Bryson is to travel with a memoirist gifted with wry observation and keen insight that shed new light on things we mistake for commonplace. To accompany the author as he travels with the likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton is a trip worth taking for most readers.” – Publishers Weekly (2,029 customer reviews and 4.6 out of 5 stars)

Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc by Hugh Aldersey-Williams – Why is gold coveted, but not iron? And why did platinum displace silver at one point in the twentieth century as the metal-of-choice for jewelry? Aldersey-Williams talks about the impact that certain elements in the periodic table have had on our lives. In some ways he mixes chemistry and social science to create a very insightful book. (108 customer reviews and 4.1 out of 5 stars)

Seven Elements That Changed the World: An Adventure of Ingenuity and Discovery by John Browne – “Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry can look at the periodic table of elements and feel confident that the vast majority of listed chemicals, save several latecomers synthesized in physics laboratories, serve vital roles in the world around us. For his debut work of nonfiction, however, former British Petroleum CEO Browne decided to focus only on seven—iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon, convincingly demonstrating how each had its part in shaping human civilization, both for good and for ill. Iron, for instance, was indispensable in building machinery that powered the industrial revolution, but has also made possible the diverse and destructive weapons of war. Carbon, in the form of oil and coal, provides abundant energy but also accelerates global warming. Gold and silver have buttressed international economies while fostering greed and genocide, whereas uranium is essential both in nuclear power plants and in the world’s deadliest bombs. In his first foray into popular-science writing, Browne does an admirable job crafting an informative and engrossing chemistry-based view of history.” – Booklist (8 customer reviews and 4.4 out of 5 stars)

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean – “Science magazine reporter Kean views the periodic table as one of the great achievements of humankind, ‘an anthropological marvel,’ full of stories about our connection with the physical world. Funny, even chilling tales are associated with each element, and Kean relates many. The title refers to gallium (Ga, 31), which melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit, prompting a practical joke among ‘chemical cognoscenti’: shape gallium into spoons, ‘serve them with tea, and watch as your guests recoil when their Earl Grey ‘eats their utensils.’ Along with Dmitri Mendeleyev, the father of the periodic table, Kean is in his element as he presents a parade of entertaining anecdotes about scientists (mad and otherwise) while covering such topics as thallium (Tl, 81) poisoning, the invention of the silicon (Si, 14) transistor, and how the ruthenium (Ru, 44) fountain pen point made million for the Parker company. With a constant flow of fun facts bubbling to the surface, Kean writes with wit, flair, and authority in a debut that will delight even general readers.” (613 customer reviews and 4.5 out of 5 stars)

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland – “No previous author has attempted a book such as this: a complete history of novels written in the English language, from the genre’s seventeenth-century origins to the present day. In the spirit of Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, acclaimed critic and scholar John Sutherland selects 294 writers whose works illustrate the best of every kind of fiction—from gothic, penny dreadful, and pornography to fantasy, romance, and high literature. Each author was chosen, Professor Sutherland explains, because his or her books are well worth reading and are likely to remain so for at least another century. Sutherland presents these authors in chronological order, in each case deftly combining a lively and informative biographical sketch with an opinionated assessment of the writer’s work. Taken together, these novelists provide both a history of the novel and a guide to its rich variety. Always entertaining, and sometimes shocking, Sutherland considers writers as diverse as Daniel Defoe, Henry James, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Michael Crichton, Jeffrey Archer, and Jacqueline Susann.” (17 customer reviews and 3.8 out of 5 stars)

The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal – “In this entertaining history world’s most ubiquitous language, linguistics expert David Crystal draws on one hundred words that best illustrate the huge variety of sources, influences and events that have helped to shape our vernacular since the word “roe” was written down on the bone ankle of a roe deer in the fifth century. Featuring ancient words (‘loaf’), cutting-edge terms that reflect our world (‘twittersphere’), indispensable words that shape our tongue (‘and’, ‘what’), and more fanciful words (‘fopdoodle’), David Crystal takes readers on a tour of the winding byways of our language via the rude, the obscure, and the downright surprising.” (35 customer reviews and 4.1 out of 5 stars)

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