Microhistories: A Short Introduction

I was recently searching our catalog for something that included the word ‘rain,’ and stumbled upon this book with that single-word title, which “tells the story of rain – elemental, mysterious, precious, and destructive.” Huh, well color me nerdily intrigued. Following my curiosity further, I noticed the book is included in several recommendation lists of ‘microhistories.’ This word, I learned, describes “a genre of history that focuses on small units of research, such as an event, community, individual or a settlement.”1 Basically, this genre seeks to understand history by examining the ‘little’ people and things that often get lost or glossed over in history’s grand narratives. Instead of trying to tell the story of an entire war or civilization, for instance, microhistories look closely at one specific element and watch it unfold through time.

While the the word for this granular mode of historical study was new to me, the concept was somewhat familiar. Years ago, I remember listening to a podcast that discussed the book Salt: A World History, and having my mind blown while contemplating this insanely useful and life-essential mineral that we use to flavor and preserve food, soften water, de-ice roads, disinfect wounds, or rehydrate through IV – and how its availability and production have impacted economies and civilizations through history. History hits a little different when it encompasses the familiar; little things can feel revolutionary when put in special focus, like the fascination of looking at macro photography and realizing that an easily-overlooked leaf or water droplet holds endless captivation within it.

With their detailed (some might say obsessive, but those people are probably judgy and boring) focus on things both mundane and obscure, microhistories will give you exactly the sort of oddly specific and fascinating knowledge you can dazzle others with (or bore – it really depends on your audience), with a casually self-assured, “Did you know…” Even the titles of the books sound like a hilariously intriguing conversation opener from the most quirkily interesting person you know, with great ones like “Consider the Fork” and “Robbing the Bees.”

If you’d like to see what fascinating microhistory books are out there, try doing a List search in our online catalog. There are seriously just…SO…MANY, and most of the items I looked at were available in some format within our MORE library system – so many chances to delve into some small, weird, unexplored, illuminating history.


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