Why “Microhistories” Rock

On the value of digging really deep into a narrow subject

Clive Thompson

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Yeah, I spent the weekend reading about beavers

I am a sucker for “microhistories”.

In the world of publishing, the “microhistory” is a term of art for a particular type of book. They tend to be …

  • short
  • focused on one single subject, and
  • usually historical

You’ve probably seen these sorts of books. They’re often popular in airport bookstores, since their single-minded focus makes them easy to market, and their brevity means they can be inhaled during a single flight. Better yet, they endow readers with oddball trivia one can bust out over drinks. (“Did you know Ancient Rome paid for its wars with taxes on salt?”) For years, microhistories have scratched the monomaniacist’s itch that is, today, probably more often scratched by losing oneself in Wikipedia rabbitholes.

Nonetheless, I still read loads of microhistories, and very often on paper, like an animal.

Why? Why do I dig them so?

It’s because of their narrowness.

The problem with “big” books: They’re often too shallow

We live in a period where there’s a certain vogue for the opposite type of book: The huge book, the broad tome with a history-spanning Theory of Everything — books like Sapiens, or Guns, Germs and Steel, which promise to reveal the subterranean trends propelling civilization.

These books tend to range across a mammoth amount of subjects — the role of weather in Napoleon’s defeat! the construction of the American interstate highways! Henri Poincare’s meditations on mathematical creativity! — in an attempt to show how the big idea Explains Everything. Imbibe this book, the publisher and author promise, and you too will intuit the deep patterns illuminating humanity’s next five centuries, or, at least, the upcoming Q2 for your layoffs-as-a-service startup. Books like this have been around for eons, though they probably metastatized culturally with the late-20th-century success of bestsellers like Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock or Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net