Sure, it's uplifting to read about John Adams and the Founding Fathers, or those daring exploits of the Greatest Generation during World War II. But they also serve who only twist the screws--as you'll learn from One Good Turn, a history of the humble screwdriver. It's just one of a spate of oddball history books that eschew the grand and the momentous in favor of the small, the prosaic and the overlooked. Recently we've seen or will soon see histories of, among other things, salt, the ostrich, New York City sewage, flattery and not one but two books about dust. But don't wait for them to show up as answers on Jeopardy; here's a quick survey of some of these trivial pursuits.
1 PURPLE PROSE William Perkin, who "Invented a Color that Changed the World" with his accidental creation of synthetic dye, revolutionized organic chemistry--and fashion. Queen Victoria wore mauve to her daughter's wedding in 1858; London erupted soon after with "mauve measles."
2 LEFTY LOOSEY, RIGHTY TIGHTY The screwdriver is the only major mechanical tool not independently invented by the Chinese. An early use of screws was by medieval jousting knights to fasten their armor.
3 WHEN YOU'RE SMILING Traces laughter from animal behavior to human language. Oddity: A 1962 laughing epidemic in an African village.
4 FASCINATING FRUIT In 1880 bananas were unknown in the U.S.; by 1910 they were common. Fruit firms set up plantations in Central and South America; the Army propped up puppet leaders to protect trade--hence the term "banana republic."
5 NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT Dust did in the dinos and suffocated the Pompeiians; today its industrial version can kill. But without it? No earth. The planet, the author writes, is melted dust.
6 CRYING TIME A look at tears from the 14th century B.C. to Tammy Faye Bakker. Fables said tears could bring the dead to life. Now politicians hope well-timed tears can revive dead careers.