Friday, September 25, 2009

The Something: An unauthorized history of the thing that altered the fate of the misunderstood people of the Western World

As I search for ideas for a second book, I keep coming across a particular genre of books that simultaneously baffle and intrigue. I've read several of them. Some are really good, others aren't.

Louise is convinced my second book should fit into this classification.

I don't think there's an official name for these types of books. Basically, they are detailed histories of a particular subject - whether it's an animal, a product, a plant, a disease - that also offer in-depth looks at how the subject fits into the current world. They can be serious, quirky, strange, funny, tragic, and dramatic, and some of them possess all of those qualities. They also often have over-the-top titles that seem to inflate the importance of the book's subject. But once you read the book, you actually think, "God, he's right, the tuna has played a critical part in our world's history."

And they're not about subjects that anyone would realize make good subjects for such a book. A history of the Roman Empire? Sure, makes sense. Same for a detailed history of the auto industry.

From 2002. Perhaps the best known of these books. It could even take credit for kickstarting the trend, as many of the other entries were published in the past few years, presumably in part because of the success of Salt.

I haven't seen any books devoted exclusively to the history of pepper, but there is:

Spice: The history of a Temptation
From 2004. Temptation isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking of spices, but this book "demonstrates that, even in ancient times, spices from distant India and Indonesia made their way west and fueled the European imagination." They also improved sex lives.

Mark Kuriansky wrote Salt. He also penned Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

Fish lovers have lots to choose from. If cod's not your thing - or you're skeptical that it changed the world - how about Tuna: A Love Story, from 2008. I love tuna. In sandwich form, especially. The book's not about forbidden love or Bill Parcells, but is a call to action, as the author, Richard Ellis, shows how the tuna might be doomed in the ocean.

The tuna is sort of beloved. How about an animal that's hated? For that, there's 2007's Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed its Way to the Top.

If I lived anywhere other than New York, I'd read that book. But I have no desire to know just how cunning and indestructible the rat really is. Not when I see at least one a week on the streets, acting like it owns the city. Which they do.

So crawling rodents. How about Flying Rats?

I don't know, is it really the most revered bird? Give me the eagle. And reviled? In New York, certainly. But in the world?

For foodies, there's Bananas: An American History.

If that book seems too American-centric, how about the dramatic Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World

Most people don't think of the banana in such terms. Most people are just too short-sighted.

And while the banana changed the world, did it save the Western World? No. What did?

Need a burst of energy?

The dark history of coffee. Which is different than Skin: A Natural History

Speaking of stimulants, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography
Although short and simple, that might be my favorite title of these, as it leaves open the possibility that somewhere out there is an authorized biography of cocaine. One that enjoyed the full cooperation of coke and its friends, heroin and crack.


Lots of interesting details in that one, though I'm not sure how many people are surprised by its impact. If milk was once used as fuel for cars, then it might be a surprising story.

Sick of friends and family who criticize you for your love of mini-donuts and french fries?

Reading these books can be frustrating for potential authors. A two-hour brainstorming session sparks a dozen ideas for new books. A quick check of Amazon crushes them in a few minutes. Everything's been written about, seemingly.

And, finally, a book that received a lot of publicity and even more snickers last year. But it's a book that's actually quite fascinating.

Again, it seems like there's nothing left to explore here. Once you've written the book on human waste, where else is there to go?

Perhaps my only remaining opportunities (copyright pending):

The Semicolon: An Unauthorized Biography of the World's Most Confusing Punctuation

Or Appendix: A History of the Body's Most Worthless Organ.

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