Three newly released books remind us that history is more than just a series of big moments. It resides in the small details and in unexpected places.
Bill Bryson’s best-selling At Home: A Short History of Private Life is now available in an illustrated edition. In it, the veteran author embarks upon a detailed exploration of his house, a Victorian parsonage in southern England. We are so immersed in our daily lives that we often fail to see that a back story exists to everything around us. Plumbing this notion could be a daunting task for a writer, but Bryson gracefully transitions from room to room and anecdote to anecdote with a sharp, playful intelligence. New readers will be enthralled; returning readers will be re-enthralled and appreciate the accompanying illustrations.
There’s a joy to Bryson’s writing, as if he’s tickled and astounded by his discoveries. Take his discussion of salt: It’s a coveted and essential mineral, but the absence of salt, Bryson observes, “awakens no craving. It makes you feel bad and eventually it kills you . . . but at no point would a human being think: ‘Gosh, I could sure do with some salt.’” His infectiousness will propel readers through the book.
THE LONGEST DAY
Illustrator Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a panoramic, 24-foot-long, black-and-white drawing of World War I’s signature (and gruesome) battle. On that day, some 20,000 British soldiers—not knowing that a weeklong strategic artillery bombardment had failed to wipe out German machine-gun emplacements—essentially marched to their slaughter. Another 40,000 were wounded. We see the soldiers proceeding as if they’re going to work, laughing and yawning and waiting. Then, there’s a wave of uninterrupted terror. Men shout and wear masks of grave concern. Bodies lie in immobile stacks. Each panel is packed with the aspects of war we prefer not to see. The final one, where soldiers dig rows of graves, is a grim reminder of the misery that remained even after the battle died down. Sacco’s astounding depiction of that day is overwhelmingly moving because he captures the little strokes among the epic chaos.
STORY OF A NATION
In many ways, The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin is the ideal coffee-table book. Featuring a thoughtfully curated selection of objects from the Smithsonian’s vast collections—including Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet—the book boasts an abundance of stunning photos and short, info-packed chapters that make it easy to dive in at any point and come away with something useful. Gawk at a photo of Julia Child’s kitchen, and learn that her mainstream success was partially set up by Jackie Kennedy. Gaze upon Abraham Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat, and discover that most clothes in pre-industrial America were made specifically for an individual. What also becomes apparent in perusing the pages of The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects is that items we might dismiss as merely stuff may end up being part of our nation’s history. Fifty years from now, an iPhone could be a relic that represents a culture gradually seeing the world through mobile technology. History is in the objects all around us—not just in books.