Rebecca M. Herzig’s latest book, “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal,” may suggest something slightly distasteful or, at best, a kind of side-show historical pursuit. My gosh, the reader might ask, will people write about anything these days?

The answer is, of course, an unqualified “Yes.” Name a subject, and for better or worse, you can probably find a book that covers it. You may find many volumes or a whole field of research dedicated to your quest. Two or three decades ago, this was not so.

Herzig, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Bates College, is a new breed of writer-researcher. She applies solid, tried-and-true scholarly methods to subjects that would have been deemed trifling a few years ago. In “Plucked” she tells the seemingly obscure story of “hair removal below the scalp line” throughout American history. In a very reader-friendly way we are shown the relevance of hairlessness in the terms of society, race, politics, fashion and economic development.

Consider: “Recent studies indicate that more than 99 percent of American women voluntarily remove hair and more than 85 percent do so regularly, even daily. The usual targets for women, are legs, underarms, eyebrows and upper lip and bikini lines. Over the course of a lifetime, one 2008 survey indicated, American women who shave (a relatively inexpensive way to remove hair) will spend, on average, more than $10,000 and nearly two months of their lives simply managing unwanted hair.”

Before one goes off on a misogynistic gigglefest, we are informed that “most American men, too, routinely remove facial hair, and increasing numbers modify hair elsewhere on their bodies. Research indicates that as of 2005 more than 60 percent of American men were regularly reducing or removing hair from areas of the body below the neck.”

Quite startling statistics, especially for this old refugee from the hirsute 1960s. In that decade this reviewer was once told to “go back to Cuba” by a loudmouth in a passing car. Happily for me, he hit a red light and I was able to “discuss things” with him through his quickly locked doors and rolled-up windows.

Speaking of Cuba, where I have yet to travel, Herzig starts things off with the “forced shavings” of “high value detainees” (accused terrorists) by the CIA at Guantanamo Naval Base. Here we have control of the human body in an undignified and humiliating way by a political power.

After this current events lesson, we are taken on a sweeping overview of American history in nine rather self-explanatory chapters: “The Hairless Indian: Savagery and Civility before the Civil War,” “Chemicals Of the Toilette from Homemade Remedies to a New Industrial Order,” “Bearded Woman and Dog-Faced Men: Darwin’s Great Denudation,” “Smooth, Whit and Velvety Skin: X-Ray Salons and Social Mobility,” “Glandular Trouble: Sex Hormones and Deviant Hair Growth,” “Unshaven: Armpit Feminists and Woman’s Liberation,” “Cleaning the Basement: Labor, Pornography and Brazilian Waxing,” “Magic Bullets: Laser Regulations and Elective Medicine,” and “The Next Frontier: Genetic Enhancement and the End of Hair.”

So will we be morphed into the huge-headed, small-bodied, glabrous future humans of 1950s and ’60s movie lore? The things we put ourselves through, from clam shells and razors to back-alley x-ray hair-removal salons where, as the author notes, “The act of removing roots appears to have more than one meaning,” have been horrifying as well as lucrative. “Does it come under the purview of elective or necessary medicine? Personal or political choice? How thoroughly we are all swept up in a much larger business and industrial drama having to do with manipulation of ideas, taste and big money.”

Read on. This book is astonishing.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra.

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