History Reviewer

Drugs for Life? [Book Review]

Looks like an interesting work of cultural history – how our ideas of what is ‘healthy’ is determined by changes in the ‘health’ industry:

Once upon a time, people generally considered themselves healthy unless they felt ill, or had frailties or symptoms beyond normal ones. Two large changes have resulted in a new model of health. First, in the past half-century we have seen the rise of risk factors: familiar things such as diet, age and sleep patterns, and unseen and unfamiliar things such as cholesterol levels, positive BRCA1 and 2 genetic tests, and PSA (prostate specific antigen) readings. We are all at risk, differing only in degrees. Second, and partly as a result of the first change, we can be normal and unhealthy at the same time, at least when there is some hope for treatment. For example, the unfortunate results of ageing used to be just that but now we look for medical means to stave them off or treat them. Thus, there is no contradiction in the thought that most of us are less than healthy in this or that respect.

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History Reviewer

Book Review: Curious Behaviour

I love a bit of cultural history, and this review tweaked my attention:

What do you like in a book? Originality. What do you like in a character? Bravery. Robert Provine is a real character. Not from a book, but from real life. Could someone please make a movie about this scientist? He deserves to be a hero for more people than simply those who will read his work. He is a valiant man and this is an original book: a book about people’s quirks and the uncomfortable noises that we have suppressed, particularly after Victorian times. Why would someone study those seemingly uninteresting and inappropriate acts? I would say the answer lies in the questions this neuroscientist has asked himself: why do we burp or sneeze? What is a cough? What has really gone with the wind? Well, you don’t really know – and you won’t until you read Curious Behavior.

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Revealing Footnotes (the kind of history I love)

What do your shoes say about you? More than you think, says Caroline Knowles. They hint at your class, job, where you live and even how you spend your leisure time

Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin? Most workers in higher education can afford neither make of shoe. But that’s the point. Shoes reveal tantalising information about how the social world works, so why do sociologists, anthropologists and historians show so little interest in them?

The idea of a single object shedding light on the wider world captured the public’s imagination in A History of the World in 100 Objects, the British Museum/BBC collaboration broadcast last year. Listeners enthusiastically offered their own objects to be analysed for their broader significance. There is a similar project to be done on our footwear and its social meaning.

Edward Tenner, US historian of technology and culture, explores how the tacit knowledge underlying everyday activities changes in different cultures. He devotes a whole section to shoes in his 2003 book Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology. They are, he says, far more than our contact with the world beneath our feet; they help govern our perceptions of it as well.

Shoes reveal social fabrics. They alert us to key areas of social significance and are an effective entry-point for biographical and geographical methods of social enquiry.

The world is divided into those who have shoes and those who don’t. According to Tenner, a billion people worldwide walk barefoot, so shoes reveal the social morphology of the world on a global scale. The shoeless live mostly in the global South. The potentially shoeless – that is, the homeless – of the (unevenly) affluent North wear recycled shoes. Photographer and writer Peter Coles’ beautiful photo-essay Paris Traces: Shoes explores the Parisian custom of leaving shoes that are no longer wanted neatly on the pavement as a form of recycling.

Read full story. This is the kind of history that I love, everyday objects which many of us don’t really think about, tell us so much about a culture, about a person, about a particular situation in life, and give us a peek into ‘everyday life’… true cultural history!


Pop goes academy as nerds revel in American splendour

Jon Marcus visits a department dedicated to the study of popular culture, a growing scholarly field

In a small town in rural Ohio, the heartland of the US, stands a building that resembles America’s attic. This is the library of the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.

It is stuffed to the brim with romance novels, board games, greeting cards, comic books, mail-order catalogues, matchbook covers, vinyl records and Star Trek memorabilia.

Bowling Green is the only American university to have a department of popular culture – the term itself is said to have been coined by the late Ray Browne, distinguished university professor emeritus in popular culture, who co-founded the programme in 1973.

Dr Browne, who initially had trouble persuading colleagues that popular culture was a serious academic discipline, died last year at the age of 87. But the field he pioneered is thriving.

Read the full story in the Times Higher Education