On December 7, 1948, Mark Kurlansky was born. Mark Kurlansky is a journalist and historian, and the author of several best-selling nonfiction books.
His books of history aren’t focused on political struggle, war, important people, or the rise and fall of kings. Kurlansky writes histories of things and ideas, and his subjects are often things that you might not have thought anyone would write a history of. Kurlansky’s topics have included milk, paper, and nonviolence.
Kurlansky may not have invented this approach to history, but his books have certainly helped to popularize it. Today, instead of our usual survey of a single author’s life and works, we pay tribute to Kurlansky with a sampling of books in this style, an alphabet’s worth of unexpected histories.
- Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue, William Casey King
- Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans
- Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, Dan Flores
- The Season: A Social History of the Debutante, Kristen Richardson
- Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
- A History of Food in 100 Recipes, William Sitwell
- Ghosts, a Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof, Roger Clarke
- Heart: A History, Sandeep Jauhar
- A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable, Brain Clegg
- The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia
- The History of Karate and the Masters Who Made It, Mark I. Cramer
- Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, Eric Jay Dolin
- Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz
- The Secret History of Nursery Rhymes, Linda Alchin
- The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky
- The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Henry Petroski
- *Tales from Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major, John Feinstein
*This title is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch. Q School is the annual process by which the Professional Golfers’ Association determines which golfers will be eligible for that year’s tournaments; Feinstein’s book is not a history, but an inside look at one year of Q School. But the letter “Q” doesn’t offer a lot of options, and Q School is an unlikely enough subject to be in keeping with the spirit of the list. While we wait for definitive histories to be written of quinoa, quiz shows, and Quibi, let’s continue with the rest of the alphabet.
- Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett
- One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, Witold Rybczynski
- What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, Brian Seibert
- Ugliness: A Cultural History, Gretchen E. Henderson
- A (Brief) History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, Robert Evans
- Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval
- America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, Erika Lee
- The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, Molly Caldwell Crosby
- The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos, Vicki Croke
Also This Week
December 9, 1845
Joel Chandler Harris was born. Harris was an Atlanta journalist who collected and published several volumes of “Uncle Remus” stories, collections of African-American folk tales, and songs. His choice to set the stories in a plantation context, and to write them in African-American dialect, have made them somewhat controversial in the modern era, but many scholars of African folklore believe that they are faithful and accurate retellings of stories that would have been commonly shared among enslaved people. Nights With Uncle Remus gathers many of the most popular tales.
December 13, 1929
Christopher Plummer was born. In a career of more than sixty years, he has appeared in more than 100 films and is one of the few actors to have received all three of the major American acting awards—the Oscar, the Emmy, and the Tony. He stars with Martin Landau in the 2015 revenge thriller Remember; he can be heard in the original cast recording of the musical Cyrano, one of his two Tony-winning performances; and his memoir is called In Spite of Myself.
December 8, 1945
John Banville was born. Banville is an Irish novelist who cites W. B. Yeats and Henry James as major influences; his work is frequently praised for its dark wit and carefully crafted prose. He has published eighteen novels, a collection of short stories, and a memoir. He also writes crime novels set in 1950s Dublin under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Most of his books, as both Banville and Black, are available at Overdrive.
December 10, 1980
Sarah Chang was born. Chang is a classical violinist who began studying at the Juilliard School at age 5 and recorded her first album, Debut, at 10. She has recorded many of the major violin concertos, and several of her recordings are available for streaming at hoopla.