Histories of the Unexpected: How Everything has a History

Histories of the UnexpectedHistories of the Unexpected
by James Daybell, Sam Willis
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781786494122
Publication Date: October 1, 2018
Pages: 467
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Atlantic Books

In this fascinating and original new book, Sam Willis and James Daybell lead us on a journey of historical discovery that tackles some of the greatest historical themes - from the Tudors to the Second World War, from the Roman Empire to the Victorians - but via entirely unexpected subjects.

You will find out here how the history of the beard is connected to the Crimean War; how the history of paperclips is all about the Stasi; how the history of bubbles is all about the French Revolution. And who knew that Heinrich Himmler, Tutankhamun and the history of needlework are linked to napalm and Victorian orphans?

Taking the reader on an enthralling and extraordinary journey through thirty different topics that are ingeniously linked together, Histories of the Unexpected not only presents a new way of thinking about the past, but also reveals the everyday world around us as never before.


This was a weird one.  The book focuses on the premise that everything has a history beyond the obvious, including things like bubbles, clouds and itching, and it’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style, so that the history of hands leads to gloves, leads to perfume, etc.  The authors host a podcast by the same name, so I’m guessing this book is the result of the podcast’s success.

It sort of works.  I genuinely enjoy reading history from any viewpoint that doesn’t include wars, battles, skirmishes, politics, genocides or religious persecutions, and for the most part this book delivered on that.  At times the authors slipped into their true historian selves and some of the above made an appearance.  I skimmed those sections, and skipped sections that included histories involving animal cruelty, but there was very little of both.

The writing was good enough to hold a reader’s attention, but the structure of the book lends itself to limited attention spans, or for dipping into a chapter at a time.  Since it’s designed to bounce around, it’s difficult to get absorbed in the reading of it.

Possibly a good choice for a young adult reluctant to see the point of history.

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