I was recently loaned Antonia Ridge's 1965 book For Love of a Rose by a family member, after a trip to Butchart Gardens. You read such loaned books because it's the thing to do, even if they don't line up very well with your areas of interest, but Ridge's book reminded me how much fun popular history books used to be.
It's the story of the creation of the Peace rose, which was the twentieth century's most successful and most popular rose, in 1935 by a young French hybridist named Francis Meilland. Ridge gives the full back story of the Meilland family's connections to roses, so it spans several generations of a few different French and Italian families, illustrating the hybridization of rose-loving humans as well as their roses. You certainly don't need to understand rose hybridization to read the book; I was entirely ignorant going in, and although I have a pretty clear sense now of how it works, there's no way you can consider this book a teaching manual.
For Love of a Rose is one of those chatty, conversational historical books that's more interested in setting a scene and telling a story than in rehearsing the facts. It's quite factual, I think, since Ridge spent time with everyone still alive at the time of her writing, but the readerly experience is that it's really not about that. This book is a classic pop history work, from the time when people read history for the pleasure of knowledge rather than to be informed. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Jared Diamond and Thomas Homer-Dixon and the rest of them, but their books represent a different sort of worldview. Antonia Ridge's book simply wouldn't do any longer, because her approach has associations with a certain kind of well-meaning dilettantism rather than with academic rigour ("rigour, damn it, rigour, that's the thing!"), but when I was a kid, the history shelves in my small-town library were full of books like hers. I learned a lot from them, and I miss them.
Even when I'm not all that interested in the subject.