Based on their popular podcast, Dr Sam Willis and Professor James Daybell’s ‘Histories of the Unexpected’ shows readers “how everything has a history.”
Throwing out the window the usual format for a history book, nothing is chronological or arranged by subject, and there isn’t really an argument or conclusion. Yet the book certainly is a journey, written by historians who obviously care passionately about the contents of every page.
Each chapter has a starting theme: ‘snow’ or ‘hair’ or ‘shadows’. The writers then follow the threads wherever they lead, showing how ‘snow’ is really about the history of tattoos, DNA, bacchanalian excess, the Boston Massacre and cruelty to cats. The connections can be at the same time spurious and genius.
Every tiny detail is treated with the same reverence as discussions around the matter of great historical figures or significant historical events. These conventional subjects of historical study are approached from unusual angles – the death of Napoleon discussed through his campaign bed, Holocaust memorial discussed through the humble paperclip.
One of the most moving passages in my opinion was the section on ‘clocks’. The authors explored the poignant history of stopped clocks and the emotionally charged stories that can come from something as seemingly simple as a stopped clock, looking at what happened at precisely 03.07am on 15 April 1912 and what happened at 10.04am on 11 September 2001. Difficult periods of history are handled with care and warmth.
Overall, the book is accessible and easy to read. At times the language is light and irreverent but the history is told with personal anecdotes and opinions that connect the reader to the authors. The book can be picked up irregularly during a busy working day and a few of the short sections read to pass the time. You will almost certainly come across something that you did not know before.
One of its consistent threads is how we think about history – how we study it – and how we consume it. It is a fascinating book in the way it is packaged as much as it is fascinating for the facts and stories found within it.