Thank goodness, then, for The Mental Floss History of the World – because 1,500 years is a lot of history to skip, and I gave up textbooks for good in 1992. The fine folks at mental_floss magazine, in print and online, have spent the last seven years daring an anti-intellectual, Bush-benumbed populace to embrace the acquisition of knowledge. They’ve done it with bite-size tidbits of trivia and explorations of entire epochs – as well as discussions of science and economics that make those subjects as accessible as they’re ever going to get. And they’ve leavened it all with just enough snarky humor to make their facts taste like Tang instead of, say, Metamucil.
They’ve sliced, diced, condensed and expanded upon such material for eight previous books. But a History of the World? That would seem a rather monumental undertaking – heck, even Mel Brooks couldn’t get past Part I.
The new book’s subtitle, “An Irreverent Romp Through Civilization’s Best Bits,” offers a clue to the magic involved in condensing roughly 62,000 years of human history (or one-tenth that much, if you’re a Creationist) into 400 pages. Rule Number One: Be brief! Why waste more than 700 words on the Black Death when you can move on to more pleasant events of the 14th century – such as the invention of the chastity belt? Rule Number Two: Be silly! If Mrs. Rivers had laced her lectures with discussions of assembly-line-produced porcelain (China, 10th century) or the advent of the prophylactic (England, 17th century) … well, she probably wouldn’t have gotten past the popular practice of between-meal vomiting (Rome, 1st century BC).
With help from “the editors of mental_floss” – which I assume means, “with material we borrowed from back issues of the magazine” – authors Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand “spin the globe” to make sure that the material doesn’t get too Euro-centric (even if ancient Africa gets kinda short shrift – damn their refusal to develop written languages!). Timelines ground each of the 12 epoch-specific chapters in basic big-event history, allowing the authors to drift off into tangential trivia, often through the use of sidebars. Sections also chart the “ups” and “downs” of various civilizations and ethnic groups – for some reason, the Jews are usually “down” (go figure). There are some abrupt transitions between cultures, and perhaps some spots where the authors get too glib for their own good (pirate health care?), but the book makes history flow at a rollicking pace – and, conversely, makes it digestible in five-minute bursts.
If that last bit makes The Mental Floss History of the World sound like great bathroom reading, it is – for those moments when Us Weekly or The Wit and Wisdom of Sarah Palin simply don’t provide enough substance. If you require 300 pages on the impact of the Reformation on confessionalization in Upper Franconia, don’t look for it here – look there. But even if you’re still obsessing over Palin, whose 15 minutes came and went after this book had gone to press, rejoice: Each chapter here concludes with a section of Best and Worst trends of its era, the latter falling under the heading, “Thanks, but no thanks for…” Chapter 7’s entry? Syphilis!
Buy The Mental Floss History of the World at Amazon.