10 Books To Humble You Into Wonderment


“Wonder,” wrote Richard Harvell in a recent NPR article, “is that feeling you get when some new idea springs open your imagination to reveal that the world is so much vaster and richer than you ever thought.” Although Harvell goes on to recommended Perfume: The Story of a Murder, The Age of Wonder, and Candide, Or Optimism as “Three Books to Rekindle Your Sense of Wonder,” we couldn’t help but consider a more bite-sized approach to the conundrum. These ten richly detailed micro-histories will humble you into reveling in the vastness of the world — or, at the very least, open your imagination to some good trivia points.

Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization

Iain Gately chronicles the long history and cultural manifestations of this multi-purpose plant, from its early use in Amerindian culture through the infamous Clinton/Lewinsky cigar. Whether you’re tobacco addicted or totally averse, the book offers trivia about everything from the origins of the smoking jacket and strike-anywhere matches to tobacco’s medical applications and hazards.

Glass: From the First Mirror to Fiber Optics, the Story of the Substance that Changed the World

From windows and mirrors to cups and light bulbs, we’re surrounded by glass, but, by virtue of its fragile design and high visibility, rarely ever notice it. National Geographic writer William S. Ellis explores its role in historical epochs (Rome, the spread of Islam, the founding of Jamestown) as well as science and invention (telescopes, thermometers, modern lasers), offering a transparent lens (pun unavoidable) on the contribution of glassware to human history.

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird

Although far less cuddly than dogs, domesticated pigeons have served humans since the ancient Egyptians trained them to carry messages about flood levels along the Nile. Andrew D. Blechman examines everything from the subcultures that have sprung up around pigeons (from New York City rooftop clubs to Queen Elizabeth’s plush racing lofts) to the filth and over-population that has tarnished their reputation. With a surprisingly neutral stance, Blechman sheds light on the appealingly eccentric cultural history of this so-called “rat with wings.”

Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug

With 80 billion of those little white 300mg pills consumed every year by Americans alone, it’s impossible to dispute the popularity and effectiveness of aspirin. And in Diarmuid Jeffreys’ engrossing account, the history of this beloved drug — which dates back more than 6,000 years and has a rather dramatic recent business history — is just as easily devoured. No sip of water necessary.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Micro-history queen Mary Roach made her name in the genre with Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Although she’s gone on to write about everything form sex to superstition — and most recently, the life of astronauts — Roach’s breakthrough book offers an unflinching look at the behind-the-scenes fate of the postmortem body.

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

For something as inoffensive as a number that translates to nothing, zero is a rather incendiary concept. One needn’t be a math geek to appreciate Charles Seife’s surprisingly accessible tribute to an abstract numerical that has crippled modern battleships, incited debate between scientists, scholars, and mystics alike, and was once outright rejected by the church.

Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears

Whether from joy or anguish, the spontaneous springing of water from someone else’s eyes commands attention. And yet, this uniquely human tendency has a multitude of meanings throughout history and across cultures. Drawing on literary and artistic representations as well as scientific and psychological theories, Tom Lutz presents a variety of interpretations about the causes and characteristics of crying.

Salt: A World History

One half of arguably the world’s most enduring marriage (at least when it comes to condiments), salt has a far more colorful history than its simple guise would suggest. Though mostly taken for granted as a culinary add-on these days, salt once had the power to influence entire trade routes, prompt political revolutions (albeit tangentially), and was once even valued as a currency. Think about that the next time you’re worried about your sodium intake.

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire

More than perhaps any other color, red is rife with emotional connotations. Desire, passion, shame, and fear are just a few of the associations conjured by this primary hue. And, as Amy Butler Greenfield illustrates in A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, it has had a consistently evocative role. Tracing the coveted materials used to create red dyes and paints in past centuries, Greenfield offers a history of red that’s as seductive as the color’s over-sexualized clichés would suggest.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

Despite its ubiquity, the banana is actually a misfit fruit. Cultivated from a wild, inedible plant in Southeast Asia, it evolved into a seedless, sexless delicacy that eventually spread to Africa and the Americas, where the demands of its popularity monopolized governments and local economies for decades. The banana’s agricultural inbreeding has left the species vulnerable to disease and fungus, however, and, as Dan Koeppel points out, its omnipresent availability may eventually dwindle.