Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A History of This in Ten, Twenty, Fifty, or a Hundred of That--A Roundup.

Several years ago, a book came out by Neil MacGregory called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It was a tie-in to an exhibit at the British Musuem and a 100 part radio series, telling the story of humanity through bronze vessels and Victorian tea sets. It turned out to be quite popular enough to start a bit of me-too publishing.

MacGregor's next book is Shakespeare's Restess World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects (Viking), a collaboration between the British Museum, the BBC, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Also an exhibit and a  BBC series, the new book collects paintings and books and and medals and communion cups and all sorts of other ephemera that will give us a greater understanding of the Bard. Stuart Kelly notes in The Scotsman that there is "much to fascinate" in MacGregor's work. Jump to his essay for his quibbles.

It's not surprising that Harold Holzer, a Lincoln expert who is also a Vice President at the Metropolitan Museum of Art would come up with The Civil War in 50 Objects (Viking). With an introduction by Eric Foner, this collection includes daguerreotypes, a soldier's foot locker, original documents, and more. This book is a collaboration with the New York Historical Society, as most of the items are from their collection. T. Rees Shapiro in The Washington Post writes that "Holzer handles the task with ease, showcasing the era through such artifacts as a pair of slave’s shackles sized for the wrists of a child and a copy, signed by Abraham Lincoln, of the manuscript for the 13th Amendment."

The Smithsonian gets in on the crazy with Richard Kurin's The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects (Surprise! It's the Penguin Press, not Smithsonian). Kurin serves as the Smithsonian's Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. Yes, there are the usual paintings and documents, but also a cotton gin, a freedom pin, Custer's jacket, and Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet. The Tulsa World highlighted the book, in conjunction with Richard Kurin's visit to Tulsa Town Hall. Alas, it's too late to book a flight to see this presentation, as it already happened. 

Two trends come together in A History of the World in 12 Maps (also Viking), by Jerry Brotton. Maps are crazy hot this year; maybe because printed maps have suddenly become nostalgia (see holiday card of Santa reading map). Jeremy Brotton is at London's Queen Mary University and was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize (holds a special place in our heart) for The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection. The new book starts with Ptolemy's Geography and ends with the too-big-for-this-volume Google Earth satellite project.  Matthew Price complains that Brotton could have more of a sense of humor (he's obviously been reading too much Simon Garfield) but otherwise has nothing but praise: "Brotton shows how these maps not only showed the world, but reflected the values--and politics--of their makers." When it comes to maps, subjectivity rules.

And finally, a book that reminds me as much of Workman's 100 Places You Must See Before You Die as much as these object histories. 1001 Idea That Changed the Way We Think (Atria), with a preface by Arthur Caplan, is, per the publisher, "a wealth of stimulation and amusement for everyone with a curious mind." Robert Arp is the general editor, presumably overseeing a team of able-bodied idea folks who researched everything from natural selection to psychoanalysis, from infinity to tipping points.  He is an adjunct professor of philosophy at a Kansas City area college, and also edited South Park and Philosophy.

Here's a short write up in the Boston Globe, which references Godwin's Law.

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