Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2131
HISTORIES OF LITTLE THINGS


John Lienhard presents guest Rob Zaretsky

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 and purgatory.

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 work.

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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).

grains of sand
Grains of sand; molecules of water (photo by JHL)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.