Back in the summer of 2005, Jake Gyllenhaal was quoted as saying:
I am reading a booked called SALT: A WORLD HISTORY, and it's all about salt.
I have a weird fascination with specifics. I like the idea of learning a lot about one thing. And salt is something you take for granted.
You think it's just something on your table. But it has a huge, long history. Wars were started over it.
This celebrity factoid stuck with me because it seemed like a very librarian conceit to be drawn to books about isolated subjects that, as he says, most people take for granted. I am also drawn to books like this, so I wanted to create a booklist of books about specific things and/or with one-word titles. Unsurprisingly, many of these have graced NYPL’s Books to Remember from years past. Movies have long been shortening their titles to evoke this dedication to minimalism, yet something about having such a myopic view of the world continues to have an appeal. Interestingly, many of these books focus on foodstuffs, perhaps in deference to the trend toward simple meals.
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky
The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg (BTR 2007) Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen (BTR 2006)
This one is a little different, but it does inspire strong reactions in people…
Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan (BTR 2004)
Tom Zoellner’s new book Uranium continues our theme. His previous, The Heartless Stone focused on diamonds. After getting dumped by his fiancée, he goes on a personal quest to find where the diamond he purchased came from, visiting Africa, Canada, Japan and other countries in the process.
History of the spice trade books: http://www.theepicentre.com/Spices/spicehistorybooks.html
Coffee history books:
Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast
God in a Cup by Michaele Weissman
More history of coffee books: http://www.jimseven.com/2006/08/18/recommended-coffee-reading/
Tea, of course, has also inspired many books about its cultural history and trading and has just as many devotees as coffee does.
Lastly, a one-word nonfiction book that doesn’t really fit, but that brings us back to the notion of celebrity that began this post.
Flapper by Joshua Zeitz
The subtitle “A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern” pretty much sums it up. Zeitz chronicles the evolution of the flapper from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writings to the cinema with Clara Bow and Louise Brooks. His approach is refreshing, detailing the escapades of a young and wild Zelda Fitzgerald and comparing the changing morals from the Victorian age to the rise of industrialization and spread of fashion.