The best books on everyday things we take for granted

Who am I?

I’m a historian who’s spent far too much time thinking about how the color magenta contributed to climate change and why eighteenth-century humanitarians were obsessed with tobacco enemas. My favorite historical topics—like sensation, color, and truth—don’t initially seem historical, but that’s exactly why they need to be explored. I’ve learned that the things that seem like second nature are where our deepest cultural assumptions and unconscious biases hide. In addition to writing nonfiction, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up on a ranch, live in Paris, work as an interior design writer, teach high school and college, and help stray dogs get adopted.

I wrote...

The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses

By Carolyn Purnell,

Book cover of The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses

What is my book about?

Blindfolding children from birth? Playing a piano made of live cats? Using tobacco to cure drowning? Wearing "flea"-colored clothes? These actions may seem odd to us, but in the eighteenth century, they made perfect sense.

As often as we use our senses, we rarely stop to think about their place in history. But perception is not dependent on the body alone. Carolyn Purnell persuasively shows that, while our bodies may not change dramatically, the way we think about the senses and put them to use has been rather different over the ages. Journeying through the past three hundred years, Purnell explores how people used their senses in ways that might shock us now. And perhaps more surprisingly, she shows how many of our own ways of life are a legacy of this earlier time.

The books I picked & why

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The Secret Lives of Color

By Kassia St. Clair,

Book cover of 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.

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters

By Deborah Stone,

Book cover of 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.  

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

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of 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.

The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes

By Michel Pastoureau, Jody Gladding,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Wolfgang Schivelbusch,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in statistics, France, and drinking culture?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about statistics, France, and drinking culture.

Statistics Explore 16 books about statistics
France Explore 537 books about France
Drinking Culture Explore 10 books about drinking culture

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion?, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas if you like this list.