Today, historian Rob Zaretsky samples history with a small "h". The
University of Houston presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
When did you last visit the history section at your local
bookstore? The cookbook section has colonized it. Consider just a few recent titles:
there are histories of spices, wine, beer, chocolate and salt -- of coffee, caffeine
and cafés. (In France, predictably, there's a two-volume work on the theory
of cafés.) Even the lowly cod has its own biography.
The history of small things reaches beyond the kitchen. As small as a history of dust.
As big as a history (oddly, not biography) of god. We find histories of heaven, hell
These new histories of the everyday, here and in the thereafter, have eclipsed their
polar opposite: world history. Great world historians like Arnold Toynbee and H. G.
Wells offered a Homeric view of humankind -- people swept up in vast economic, demographic,
political and social movements that we scarcely understand, much less control. For them,
history was a great buffet.
But it's now become a collection of condiments: pass the salt, but hold the meal.
Consider Mark Kurlansky's recent bestseller, Salt: A World History. It's a
marvelous read: replete with erudite and often gripping accounts of salt's role in the
economies and politics of various societies. From the rise of Renaissance Venice to the
decline of antebellum South, salt peppers history.
Yet it's less a history than a collection of sustained anecdotes. The ancient
Greek historian Herodotus famously loved digressions, but he nevertheless had a grand
narrative: the war between Persia and Greece and the tremendous stakes at play.
Kurlansky's impressive book has no conclusion since it has no story.
Why this infatuation with the all these accounts of the discrete and mundane? Maybe
it's an understandable reaction against forces of homogenization: We live in the
shadows of mega-churches, mega-universities and mega-malls. Global histories lose
their appeal in an age of globalization, and we pine for the particular. God may be
in the details, but so too is the essence of our lives.
These small histories echo the Dutch artists of the 17th century. Vermeer and Steen,
Hals and Metsu, painstakingly depicted the solidity of commonplace activities and objects.
They worked, though, in an age of religious bloodletting and political upheaval. Were
they perhaps reminding us that abstract ideals must be tempered by the remembrance of
the beauty in mundane objects and everyday tasks? Are these new histories trying to
do the same?
Maybe they're like the pendulum stopping at the end of its swing. I doubt that a
revisionist account of the history of dust is on the horizon (or under the sofa.)
The genre could just run to its tether. William Blake's world in a grain of sand is
compelling, but not always true. Sometime a grain of sand is really just a grain of sand.
I think we all know we need to step back, look at the sweep of the beach, and see the
story sculpted by the waves and the wind.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston
Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is
the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the
Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories:
Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004),
co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001),
translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000)
and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001). With John
Scott, he is co-author of So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David
Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding, to be published by Yale
University Press in 2007.
M. Kurlansky, A World History. (Penguin, New York, 2002).
T. Todorov, Eloge du quotidien. (Seuil, Paris, 1993).