The Best Books On Everyday Things We Take for Granted

The Books I Picked & Why

The Secret Lives of Color

By Kassia St. Clair

The Secret Lives of Color

Why this book?

Despite the fact that color is everywhere around us (or perhaps because it’s everywhere around us), we often take it for granted. But every color has a long and layered history. In The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair offers brief, beautiful, and fascinating histories of seventy-five different colors. For example, she explores the “curious case of the yellow that vanished,” a.k.a., lead-tin yellow. She explains how the daring 1920s socialite Daisy Fellowes introduced “shocking pink” to the world after being inspired by a glittering diamond. And she exposes how St. Patrick’s blue became the legendary Kelly green.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters

By Deborah Stone

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters

Why this book?

I had never really given much thought to counting until I read this book, but in the very first chapter, Stone made me rethink everything I thought I knew about “one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.” She shows that every time we count, we’re making cultural assumptions. For example, what counts as a fish? And what makes the color of the fish more relevant than other features? Counting reveals that while these choices may seem intuitive, basic, and meaningless, they have very real impacts on people’s lives. Especially when we use numbers to measure things like merit, poverty, race, and productivity, those fundamental assumptions matter more than we care to admit.  


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour

By Joan DeJean

The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour

Why this book?

DeJean is a master storyteller, and in Essence of Style, she shows how many fashionable aspects of the modern world came into being during the reign of the French King Louis XIV. For Louis XIV, power, glitter, and glamour were synonymous, and he was a trendsetter par excellence. (After all, if his nobles were spending all their money on clothes and diamonds, they couldn’t muster the funds to rebel against the king.)  Mirrors, champagne, diamonds, hairdressers, haute cuisine, perfume, and folding umbrellas all gained traction within Louis XIV’s court, and DeJean traces the emergence of each new luxury in sumptuous detail.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes

By Michel Pastoureau, Jody Gladding

The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes

Why this book?

The French historian Michel Pastoureau is the master of finding topics you never knew could have a history. His research spans from the history of blue to the history of the bear, and everything he writes makes you see the world with new eyes. One of my favorites is this slim volume about the history of stripes. Pastoureau explains why stripes were associated with the devil in the Middle Ages, why sailors and swimmers took to stripes, and why cultural preferences have shifted from horizontal stripes to vertical stripes and back again. He convincingly shows that the history of the stripe is really a history of the impulse to contain social groups and people.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants

By Wolfgang Schivelbusch

Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants

Why this book?

Virtually every dish we cook has salt. Seven out of ten Americans drink coffee every week. Chocolate hangs out next to cash registers in grocery stores and bodegas worldwide. There are so many substances that we have access to today that we don’t give a second thought, but historically speaking, their presence in our daily lives is a relatively new phenomenon. Schivelbusch investigates how the introduction to new stimulants, intoxicants, and narcotics reshaped the history of Europe (and subsequently, that of the rest of the world). Substances like tobacco, coffee, opium, chocolate, and spices didn’t just transform our palates; they transformed every aspect of our lives.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Random Book Lists