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The Mental Floss History of the World – Book Review

The Mental Floss History of the World Cover Art

History does not have to be boring. The fact the world (or at least the human population) has gotten as far as it has is a source of endless fascination, and a story that needs to be told and told well. We at Needcoffee find it deplorable that there are so many history texts out there that are so dry. Mental Floss’ answer to these deadly dull texts is instead, as they describe it, “An Irreverent Romp Thought Civilization’s Best Bits.” The authors of The Mental Floss History of the World strive (and for the most part, succeed) in presenting the history of the world in a light and interesting manner.

Each chapter of the book has different sections. We start off with “In a Nutshell,” which lays out the basics of the particular period, followed by a brief timeline of “What Happened When.” Following that are sections and tiny inset blurbs with more details about particular topics of interest (the Reformation, the cast of characters you need to know to understand the Enlightenment, etc.) Next is the “Spinning the Globe” section, which tells you what’s going on all over the world during the period. Then come the bits that I find the most interesting. “Who’s Up, Who’s Down” explores which civilizations are doing well or poorly during the period, often with fun titles like “The Huns: Up, Down, Who Cares? As Long As We Can Break Something.” Next is a section for noteworthy social trivia, often including key inventions and discoveries during the period, influential people or political and social movements. Some of the most fascinating trivia comes from this section. Finally comes “By the Numbers” with pertinent statistics from the period (apparently, Taft weighed 340 pounds in 1912). And then on to the next chapter… The sections can be a bit confusing at times because of all of the inset material, but there is enough chronological and geographical flow (and wit) within each chapter to make it easy reading.

[ad#longpost]Despite the witty titles and conversational language throughout much of the book, the information is still quite pithy and full of real history in context instead of a bunch of strung-together unrelated facts. However, the one thing that bothers me a bit is that there’s no accountability for where any of the information comes from. There are no references to where the authors gleaned any of the facts and figures in the book, and in this skeptical age of Wikipedia “facts,” I feel that this makes it hard to take seriously. It would, of course, be cumbersome to cite every single fact and date and quote listed, but the occasional “According to the writings of Plato,” or even a bibliography of some sort would lend a bit of credibility to the text. As it stands, for all I know the authors could have made up anything they wanted to. And I probably wouldn’t have even noticed this, admittedly, if they hadn’t early on in the book turned to the Bible as a historical document and related the story of Abraham as though it were just as backed up by fact as Abraham Lincoln’s. It seems like a nit, perhaps, to ask for a phrase like “According to his story in the Bible…” to qualify things, but hey, it’s not like the character of Abraham isn’t important to history or anything. Because he is, of course. But that sort of sloppiness in handling his story, even in a fun rompy book on history, leads one to wonder what else they were sloppy on.

The Mental Floss guys have indeed provided an irreverent romp, and it’s quite often a lot of fun. In addition, I learned a lot of really interesting historical trivia and some more pithy stuff as well. Pick it up if you appreciate a lighthearted approach to what is truly an interesting subject, but be wary of the facts therein until they publish an edition with references.

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