Great Guardian article:
It’s the fault of American author Mark Kurlansky. In 1999 he wrote a book that set off the fashion for what Waterstone’s categorises as “biographies of things”, called Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world. But not only did Kurlansky start a new trend in subjects – he went on to write a follow-up called Salt, and is rumoured to be working on Chips – but he also began a new and metaphysically dubious trend in subtitles.
Now each new biography of a thing thrusts itself on the reader with the justification that it was so vitally important that it transformed the planet. The style, “X: the [thing] that changed the world”, is now entrenched throughout the land.
Yes, yes, yes. Right on!