2013 was a banner year for revelatory writing: The Secret History author Donna Tart released her first book since 2002; the heavily anticipated (and, at 776 pages, just plain heavy) second volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography came out in October; Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet shone a light on the $500 billion dollar recycling industry; and we got killer biographies of Sylvia Plath, Duke Ellington and Vladimir Nabokov.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. In addition to novels, (auto)biographies, and exposés, writers and history buffs have been uncovering true tales once hidden from our curious eyes. Here are a few of my recent faves:
Shady Characters: The Secret Live of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston
Fresh, arcane, fascinating, divisive, and continuously evolving—Houston’s characters, including the asterisk (*), at sign (@) and pilcrow (¶), are revealed to have truly vibrant hidden histories. Houston fell down the punctuation rabbit hole after reading Eric Gill’s An Essay on Typography and climbed his way out via careful research of typographical marks “from ancient Greece to the Internet,” producing this polished, entertaining, and properly punctuated book. Don’t take my word for it: Julia Turner, Slate’s deputy editor, endorsed it in a recent gabfest, and film critic Dana Stevens nearly snatched it out of her hands.
Divine Fury: A History of Genius, by Darrin M. McMahon
If you asked a roomful of people for a definition of genius, you’d probably get plenty of “hmmms…” and “ums,” proffered names of great scientists, athletes, and artists, stories of Socrates, and a cornucopia of associated qualities: transcendent intelligence, ineffable creativity, and the (evil genius’s) terrible talent for destruction. McMahon, an FSU historian who previously authored Happiness: A History, collects the wildly divergent applications of the word, beginning with its first use 2,000 years ago, and assesses its impact as a cultural concept. Divine Fury may not help you formulate a succinct definition, but it will vastly enrich your understanding of genius.
Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, by Nick Bilton
Twitter has always had timelines, now it has a history. Somehow, I picked up Bilton’s new release with complete faith that his subtitle was apt, while also thinking (wrongly) that Jack Dorsey, the Twitter (and Square) cofounder who was ousted from the company in 2007, would emerge as its protagonist and hero. Bilton interviewed Twitter’s four cocreators—Dorsey, Evan Williams, Noah Glass, and Christopher Stone—extensively and studied their digital footprints, unveiling a narrative of collaborative creation, moments of near-prescient insight, and the dissolution of relationships amongst the blue bird architects who carved out 140-character spaces in our networking brains.
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
RABIES!!! (Sorry, don’t scream and run away, stay and read!) Rabies is a scientific and cultural nightmare that’s been responsible for dismal prognoses (the virus is nearly 100% fatal after symptoms progress to a certain point), bad dreams, and dark stories for millennia. Wasik and Murphy explain why we’re afraid of dogs with foaming mouths and how, until Louis Pasteur and his brave team developed the vaccine in the 1880s, we humans were defenseless against the virus, and follow the spread of rabies through fairy tales, movies, languages, and religions over time and across the globe. Their book is funny, too. Scary, funny, and falling on both sides of the science/humanities divide? What more do you want!?
And here are two works, from 2012 and 2011, respectively, that we couldn’t leave off the list:
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, by James Gleick
Gleick is a writer who can surprise and delight while describing the dark corners of history and the minutiae of scientific processes in meticulous detail. The Information both defines information as a category in helpful, comprehensive terms and traces our thinking, communicating, manipulating, and storing of it, from the talking drums of Africa to today’s “information fatigue, anxiety, and glut.” “History,” Gleick declares in the prologue, “is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” Maybe you’ve Wiki’d “information theory,” texted “TMI” to a friend, or complained about overflowing inboxes? Gleick covers all that and much more.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Skloot’s erudite, illuminating juggernaut of a book hardly needs an introduction, but for inquisitive readers who’ve been living under a rock since 2010, it unveils the history of the world’s most prevalent and important cell line (one that helped create the polio vaccine and develop in vitro fertilization), used in research labs around the world for over sixty years. It also offers a long-overdue biographic homage to the woman who unwittingly donated her tissue to science. Henrietta Lacks succumbed to cervical cancer in 1951, but her “HeLa” cells continue to be vital to scientific work, and thanks in a large part to Skloot’s book, the Lacks family recently reached a peaceable settlement with the NIH.
What’s your favorite targeted work of history?