History of the World: An Irreverent Romp Through Society’s Best Bits
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
or the last seven years, the editors of mental floss magazine have been poking the rising tide of American anti-intellectualism with a sharp-witted stick, breaking down facts and trivia into delicious, bite-sized chunks for folks who want to, as the cover’s tagline used to read, “feel smart again.” Somewhat surprisingly, the magazine became something of an instant hit, and has expanded over the years into its own miniature cottage industry, spawning a board game and a number of books with titles like “The Genius Instruction Manual” and “Cocktail Party Cheat Sheets.” Now, having proven their knack for making entertainment out of the seemingly arcane and/or impenetrable, they’ve turned their attention to the entire recorded history of human civilization.
Pearson and Hattikudur have their work cut out for them here: the core subjects are dreaded by many (if not most) students during their K-12 careers, but history has always been singled out for particular scorn – partly because of the way a lot of history teachers tend to rely on dry recitation of facts, and partly because history’s usefulness is even less apparent to the young than math or English. Whatever the reasons, a lot of people grow up thinking of history as just a bunch of boring old dates and names on the rare occasions when they think of it at all.
Of course, there are also a lot of people who like to spend a few hours getting lost in World War II footage on the History Channel, and although it necessarily avoids getting too deep into any one era or event, “The Mental Floss History of the World” should appeal to that crowd just as strongly as it will the devout non-historian, thanks largely to its breezy pace and light, humorous touch; even the dustiest, most far-flung BCE events benefit from the signature Mental Floss touch (for example, an inset detailing the reign of the little-known conqueror Sargon the Great is titled “Sargon but Not Forgotten”).
The book is broken down into a dozen chapters, taking the reader all the way from 60,000 BCE all the way to 2007, and manages to complete the journey in just under 360 pages – or just about half of that “Harry Potter” book you stayed up all night reading. Each chapter is itself divided into a series of smaller chunks: an overview of the era, titled “In a Nutshell,” followed by a timeline, a look around the globe (with chuckle-worthy titles like “China: Gettin’ Some Mo’ Zhou” or “Europe: A Case of the Plagues”), a recap of which countries and/or ethnic groups were “up” or “down” during the period, and a list of all the things that went kaput (titled “So Long, But Thanks for All The…”). All of which adds up to a read that’s as edifying as it is entertaining, which is, sadly, not something you can say about a lot of history books.
In the end, “The Mental Floss History of the World” certainly isn’t for everybody, and if you’re militantly opposed to learning about the past, there’s no guarantee this book will change your mind – but it does present the subject as entertainment in a smarter, more satisfying fashion than most like-minded projects. If you consider yourself a history buff, or find yourself needing to pick up the perfect gift for one, purchase this without reservation.