Commodity Histories that didn't suck, Part 1:

ForumCommodity Histories & Micro-Histories

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Commodity Histories that didn't suck, Part 1:

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Nov. 8, 2007, 12:32pm

Cod, Mark Kurlansky
Oyster, Mark Kurlansky
Salt, Mark Kurlansky
The Cultural History of Vanilla, Patricia Rain
Consider the Eel, Richard Schweid
The True History of Chocolate, Coe
Opium: a history, Martin Booth
Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, by Matthew Hart
The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Got any recommendations for me?!

Nov. 8, 2007, 12:46pm

Nov. 9, 2007, 1:55pm

Oo, I forgot to put in Oranges! You're right - I quite liked that one. {smiles} Thanks!

Nov. 10, 2007, 6:14pm

Other books I enjoyed, but forgot to add last post:

Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World's Most Coveted Delicacy
Woman, an Intimate Geography
The Beauty of the Beastly

Nov. 10, 2007, 6:22pm

>5 lindseynichols:, Not to quibble, but are women really viewed as a commodity in that book? Or is this a micro-history? I suppose it would actually be really interesting to read a history of how women have been viewed as commodities....though someone would probably get yelled at for writing a commodity history of people.

Nov. 10, 2007, 6:37pm

You're right, Woman: An Intimate Geography isn't a microhistory at all. {hangs head} and it certainly isn't a commodity history. i was just getting ahead of myself. my bad!

Nov. 10, 2007, 10:50pm

Hey, I'm always up for hearing about a good book, even if it's off-topic. Though my groaning tbr/wishlist may beg to differ...

Nov. 11, 2007, 8:37am

The Prize : The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin is one of my favorites.

The Heartless Stone is also good.

Nov. 11, 2007, 8:40am

I forgot to add Color : a natural history of the palette, a very interesting history pigments.

Nov. 11, 2007, 11:56am

oo, that might go well with A Perfect Red. all about cochineal dye.

Nov. 12, 2007, 5:19pm

> 9

I second The Prize : The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin. It's a book that everyone should make the time to read.

Nov. 15, 2007, 8:08am

Here's a new one. A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen reviewed today on NPR at

Nov. 15, 2007, 9:15pm

>13 varielle:: varielle... I listened to the NPR program in the car on the way home from work Wednesday. I'm not an oyster fan, but even if I were I think I would still have cringed when Melissa and Rowan slurped oysters. Yikes.

Book could be fun. I have so many commodity histories (never had a name for this specific genre until I found this group) waiting to be read so will pass on the oysters.

I've got a half dozen or so books on water, but those are more political than historic. Once I read A History of the World in 6 Glasses I may be able to make a case for that being a commodity/micro history.

Nov. 18, 2007, 10:11pm

varielle, thanks for posting the NPR link - that looks like an interesting book - especially since I'm researching oysters for my dissertation! I had enjoyed The big oyster so I'll have to check this one out as well.

Nov. 20, 2007, 9:07am

#14 All that slurping made me hungry. I wish I could have gotten some of those Appalachacola brown bellies. The best I ever had came from Alaska. Yummy!

Dez. 1, 2007, 2:12pm

oo, Olives: Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit by rosenblum is so far quite delightful. be warned, you will be hungry after a few chapters.

Dez. 1, 2007, 11:27pm

Any recommendations for tea?

Jan. 9, 2008, 10:29am

Jan. 11, 2008, 4:54pm

I just finished One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding - Rebecca Mead, which is a commodity/microhistory/social commentary on the marketing and history of American weddings that I thought was pretty interesting. I worry that my definition of commodity history is getting a little too expansive by suggesting this here, but what the heck.


Feb. 17, 2008, 7:54am

I've just started The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky. I really enjoyed his book Cod.

Feb. 17, 2008, 2:02pm

>21 LynnB:, LynnB - I hope you enjoy it - its one of my favorite books! I think I've recommended it to everyone on LT!

23tkacz Erste Nachricht
Feb. 17, 2008, 2:10pm

Try Glass, Paper, Beans by Leah Cohen and find an interesting use for mummies.

Feb. 22, 2008, 6:37am

fannyprice, I didn't enjoy The Basque History of the World nearly as much as Cod. There was a lot of history in "Basque" that wasn't described nearly as well as the perspectives of modern day Basque, their quest to develop and nurture their language, their attachment to left me wanting more of the latter and less of the former.

Feb. 22, 2008, 6:37am

Diese Nachricht wurde vom Autor gelöscht.

Feb. 22, 2008, 6:59am

Guess I'm not awake yet...I deleted message 25 because I actually posted message 24 twice, and now here's something I forgot to say:

I'm reading When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda. Not sure if this qualifies as a commodity or micro-history? But thought it similar enough that some members may like it.

Apr. 13, 2008, 2:17pm

I did enjoy Mark Kurlansky's Basque History of the World. In fact, it inspired me to try a Basque novel: Rossetti's Obsession by Ramon Saizarbitoria

Jun. 22, 2008, 3:02pm

Diese Nachricht wurde vom Autor gelöscht.

Bearbeitet: Aug. 6, 2008, 8:57am

I'm reading Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.

So, now it's August 6th and I finished Banana yesterday (or the day before?) I reallly enjoyed it...politics, murder, science, even selling the banana sliced and wrapped in foil in deference to the sensitivities of Victorian women over the shape of the fruit! Great stuff.

Aug. 7, 2008, 12:20pm

I just read the review for The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers by Bryan Christy. I never really thought of reptiles as a commodity before, but this looks interesting.

Aug. 10, 2008, 8:04am

#30 - The Orchid Thief is about another surprising (to me) and EXPENSIVE commodity.

Aug. 27, 2008, 7:49am

Aug. 27, 2008, 7:57am

The Weeping Wood by Vicki Baum is a series of short stories tracking the history of rubber.

Dez. 11, 2008, 12:04pm

I'm reading a history of the old Ottawa Senators hockey team called Win, Tie or Wrangle by Paul Kitchen. The first two chapters are wonderful, so I'm off to a happy start.

Dez. 19, 2008, 4:30pm

I'm reading Santa Claus: A Biography by Gerry Bowler. Ho Ho Ho!

Bearbeitet: Feb. 6, 2009, 6:57am

I'm reading Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan and the World by Courtney Humphries, which was recommended by someone on LT. I just love the cover photo.

Part II: And now, I've finished it. I really enjoyed this one and learned a lot about pigeons. One of the most interesting chapters was on mating and reproduction. Pigeons actually "date" for a few days before mating. And now I know why we never see baby pigeons.

Feb. 22, 2009, 9:26pm

I picked up a copy of The Big Oyster today. Looking at the cover is making me hungry. I had never really considered what a big deal the oyster business was for the Northeast until I read Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. I would love to go back to one of those old time oyster houses.

Mrz. 2, 2009, 1:41pm

I just picked up Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. Looks interesting. Maybe I should put a dab behind each ear when I start reading it.

Mrz. 4, 2009, 2:12pm

I liked the Big Oyster - I had found the abundance of them in such northerly reaches pretty amazing. But even more amazing are the efforts to restore the native eastern oyster to New York and Boston areas through aquacultured plantings of spat - baby oyster. I am following these efforts and watching to see if they will succeed in the long-term. Massive efforts and controversy in the Chesapeake region have thus far not been able to recover the population.

Mrz. 4, 2009, 8:52pm

We are mono-historyphiles and didn't know it.

Jul. 2, 2009, 7:05am

I am reading Oil on the brain, a very entertaining look at several aspects of the oil industry.

Jul. 2, 2009, 12:30pm

I am finishing up Beans: A History, by Ken Albala. An enjoyable, informative read and quite interesting.

Jul. 6, 2009, 11:36pm

I recently read Blood Diamonds, which was about the diamond wars, industry, trade, etc in Sierra Leone. Was a good read, even if the beginning was difficult to get through. The whole book is not as graphic as the Preface/Intro and is worth the time, I thought. I've posted a review as well.

Mrz. 17, 2010, 2:19pm

I finally finished the Vanilla book. It was a pretty comprehensive look at every aspect from cultivation, to manufacturing, the effect it's had on various civilizations and every side of the business. Who knew there were vanilla thieves? It even has recipes. Some of them old time from Aztec days on up to now. I will appreciate what it took to put that little bottle of vanilla in my cupboard a lot more now.

Mrz. 17, 2010, 3:07pm

Seeds of Change:Six Plants that Transformed Mankind by Henry Hobhouse was one of the books that helped me decide to major in history.

Apr. 8, 2010, 4:07pm

Speaking of Blood Diamonds ... from like, almost nine months ago, I just got around to seeing the movie .. which was very good for the most part. I don't think it really needed the love story bit or the cheesy ending with Connelly's tearduct works at full throttle, but it still got the message through well enough and made the story light enough to be handled visually.

Okt. 11, 2010, 1:40pm

Anybody still out there? I'm reading Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky and enjoying it.

Okt. 11, 2010, 1:42pm

Still here. Not much to add to though.

Okt. 11, 2010, 3:51pm

Still here, most of my reading is class work but I managed to look at this for a paper I am doing. Ambitious Brew the Story of American Beer. I found what I needed in the first 40 pages but I hope to come back to it later. Ogle has an engaging style and I enjoy the subject. Multiple meanings there.


Okt. 11, 2010, 8:45pm

I read The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History a while back and really enjoyed it. Sort of a social/micro-history of sanitation/personal hygiene.

Okt. 13, 2010, 7:30am

I read that, too, and enjoyed it. I don't know why it's been so long since I read another "micro history", because I do find them fascinating.

Bearbeitet: Okt. 15, 2010, 2:22pm

I have to say that Salt wasn't as good as Cod or the Basque History of the World. I found this one a bit repetitive and, at times, superficial.

Okt. 15, 2010, 3:56pm

I'm still here -- have not been doing any commodity-history reading as of late. I'm disappointed to hear that Salt was disappointing. :/ I still plan to give it a look, though.

Okt. 15, 2010, 6:34pm

>53 LynnB:, LynnB, I too was disappointed by Salt - I wasn't able to get very far into it before giving up.

Mrz. 16, 2011, 3:16pm

still here too... i liked salt and gave it a positive review but felt the halves were uneven, with the first half being better than the second.

Mrz. 16, 2011, 3:20pm

back at the beginning of the year i had finished up the unnatural history of the sea which probably can be considered a commodity history, even though several are covered under the general theme of marine fisheries: cod, whaling, etc. wrote up an extensive review of it as well elsewhere. won't repeat here.

Mrz. 25, 2011, 8:18am

Recently read AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War about the turn of the century battle between alternating and direct current.

Mrz. 25, 2011, 9:40pm

The Pencil by Petroski is pretty good as is Zipper by Friedel.

Another history of salt which I liked more that Salt mentioned in >55 fannyprice: and >56 GoofyOcean110: is Neptune's Gift by Multhauf and then there is Mauve the history of the development of aniline dye which I thought was a very good read.

Mrz. 26, 2011, 5:11pm

The Pencil and Mauve are both on my wish list!

Mrz. 31, 2011, 11:49am

It's been a while since I've read any commodity or micro-histories, even though I do enjoy them. Rectifying my lapse by reading Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses from Myth to Reality by Helen Scales. I'm more interested in the reality part, and we're starting wth myth, but it's ok so far.

Mrz. 31, 2011, 8:16pm

These may be playing a bit fast and loose with the idea of a commodity but they are histories of things that are exceedingly common. Revolution in Time by Landes, a history of the development of the clock, The Mirror and Man by Goldberg which is a history of the development of the mirror and its impact on society..and for some reason Touchstone can't find this work. The last - a tad more grim than the others is The Gun that Made the Twenties Roar by Helmer is a history of the development of the Thompson Submachine Gun (he called his first attempt "the trench broom") and its impact on society.

Bearbeitet: Jun. 13, 2011, 1:46am

I'm so glad that you have found each other to talk about a genre that I've never really given thought to naming. I fell in love with micro histories while staying in Northern Thailand and trading books in one of the amazing, eclectic second hand bookstores. I read Cod, and also loved The nothing that is: A natural history of the zero, and Absolut - telling the fascinating tale of Absolut vodka and its industry changing bottle. Sadly, with no room in my hiking pack, I traded these little nuggets for a little more cash to get be to the next town, but will track them down again one day when I have a permanent bookshelf to place them on. Since then, Mary Roach has become a favourite, both Stiff and Bonk I found funny and enthralling. Bill Bryson's At home is a slightly broader interpretation of this genre, but none the less, one I very much enjoyed.

Jun. 13, 2011, 11:09am

At Home is on my wish list, as are several other micro-histories. Has anyone read Spice by Jack Turner? Or, The Game Makers by Philip E. Orbanes?

Jun. 28, 2011, 6:24pm

Someone above asked about tea: Tea : Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire by Roy Moxham covers that topic.

Apr. 11, 2013, 11:50am

Here are a couple of tea books that I haven't read, but have been on my TBR pile for a while now: Tea: the drink that changed the world by Laura C. Martin and The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss.
Equal time to its rival (also not-yet-read): Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast.