Nifty Fifty: Different Approaches to History

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Fifty Things Series CollageLet’s face it, History can be boring. Of course those weighty tomes filled with hundreds of pages of narrative have their place, but Firefly Books explores new approaches to History with appeal that reaches beyond the armchair historian. The most recent title in their series is Fifty Foods That Changed the Course of History by Bill Price. In his thoughtful introduction Price reminds us how we often take our food for granted, but food is an essential link between how we live our lives and the world around us. It is also a heritage which has been passed down, and which will be passed down, for countless generations.

Learn how the demand for fresh tea spurred advances in naval engineering in the mid-nineteenth century. The rise of the “tea-clippers” would, however, be quickly eclipsed by steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal. A full eight pages is devoted to discussion of the potato and its influence on history. Did you know that the potato is not native to Europe or North America? Find out where this staple of our diet originated and how the Potato Famine reshaped not only Ireland but the rest of the world.

Scattered throughout the book are insightful quotations that provide new perspective on things we encounter every day: wine, bread, hot dogs and more. One notable omission in Price’s book is a discussion of coffee. As a great fan of the bean, I was disappointed to find it absent. But there are many great resources available exclusively on coffee.

Preceding “Fifty Foods” in the series are: Fifty Weapons That Changed the Course of History by Joel Levy, Fifty Railroads That Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws, Fifty Machines That Changed the Course of History, by Eric Chaline, and Fifty Animals That Changed the Course of History also by Chaline.

All volumes are lusciously illustrated and creatively crafted. Off-white stock and matte finishes give the impressions of a naturalist’s field journal, a scientist’s notebook, or a great chef’s scrapbook. While marketed to adults, these books are an ideal resource for teachers looking to engage reluctant readers in the study of History. Start every class with engaging five-minute discussions on the historical impact of crossbows, or sewing machines, or honey bees, or the Trans-Siberian railway. extravirginity

More seasoned historians or hard-core non-fiction fanatics will not find this series in-depth enough, but the GPL has many weightier books that offer similarly interesting lenses into history. For example, Extra Virginity: the sublime and scandalous world of olive oil by Tom Mueller (published 2012) offers a fascinating history on one of the world’s most famous and highly traded commodities. And Blood, Iron, and Gold by Christian Wolmar offers a look at the history of the world’s railroads.

Bottom Line: The “Fifty Things” series is an entertaining and informative collection of coffee table books and/or classroom resources but not for the serious historian. Four out of five stars.

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