If you’re looking for the perfect holiday gift for that cousin who dropped out two credits shy of her BA in European Civ — or for that pesky uncle who won’t stop suggesting another game of Trivial Pursuit — you could do far worse than The Mental Floss History of the World (go here for a review). Recently, the book’s co-author, Eric Sass, and mental_floss magazine co-founder/”El Presidente” Will Pearson spoke with Popdose about their latest project.
Popdose: Mental Floss has turned many thousands of readers into experts on a variety of historical and current-affairs minutiae â€“ but a one-volume history of the world? Was there any point at which you were concerned you had bitten off more than you could chew?
Will Pearson: I donâ€™t think we were ever concerned that weâ€™d bitten off more than we could chew, but we did want to take our time and get it right. Most of our book projects take about a year to complete. We worked on this one for three.
Eric Sass: It was definitely a lot of work, but it was fun. Ironically, it ended up taking more time to make the book short enough to be published in a single volume; it ended up being all about cutting down, rather than adding on. Above all, I knew we would finish it because we had signed a contract, and Will knows where I live.
In rummaging through historical epochs and events mostly ignored in the West â€“ the wars of ancient Greece, for example, or the Chinese dynasties â€“ were there any swaths of subject matter that made even you think, â€œMan, thereâ€™s a good reason we donâ€™t bother to talk about this stuff in high school?â€
ES: When youâ€™re writing about history thereâ€™s always a danger of it becoming â€œjust one damn thing after another,â€ but I hope we avoided that. The content is short and varied, and we tried to bring out the weird or amusing sides of subjects that might otherwise be boring. And we werenâ€™t afraid to skip stuff when it was too egregiously monotonous, giving a broad summary at most. For example, regarding the Peloponnesian War: â€œThe whole thing is too long and tedious to describe here, but the short version goes like thisâ€¦â€
Donâ€™t you feel guilty for being glib about the Black Plague? Those millions who died had families, you knowâ€¦
WP: Of course itâ€™s incredibly sad to think about what it was like to experience that, but thereâ€™s something about distance in time that allows us to try and laugh about a terrible situation. We wouldnâ€™t have treated something in the 20th century that way, because of the whole â€œtoo soonâ€ feeling. But the Black Plague is something that hasnâ€™t affected us as directly.
ES: And their families died, too, so there was no harm done. I kid. The bubonic plague isnâ€™t really funny. It is incredibly interesting, though. For one thing, can you imagine the mindset of the survivors? After one-third of Europe dies in the space of 20 years, in a period when Christians basically expected the Apocalypse to come at any moment, itâ€™s hardly surprising they assumed the world was ending. And then â€¦ it didnâ€™t. Another 10 years go by, 20 years, 30 years — still no Apocalypse. At what point did everyone decide they were going to have to go back to work?
Maybe you’ve got something there. How many of the folks who eagerly await the Apocalypse now are doing so just to get out of work? But I digress … Were there events in history, apart from the most obvious ones, that you found difficult to treat with irreverence? Were there others that you found difficult to treat with any seriousness whatsoever?
ES: Well, of course there are slavery and the Holocaust — anyone who tries to put a â€œfunnyâ€ gloss on either subject probably shouldnâ€™t be involved in the publishing business. Religion is obviously a sensitive area too, but itâ€™s also full of absurd and hilarious stories that no one could possibly take seriously nowadays (e.g., God giving the Philistines hemorrhoids). The Medieval papacy is pretty silly. Generally, the more seriously people or institutions take themselves, the more I want to mock them.
However, thereâ€™s a fine line between making fun of them and making light of what they did. For example, everything about Adolf Hitler deserves endless mockery — from his bizarre ideas to his monumental arrogance to his hideous little moustache. But again, the Holocaust or the Blitz over London or the conditions on the eastern front require a different tone.
Describe the process of sourcing a work like this â€“ particularly the bits that involve lesser-known histories such as ancient Africa (which is dealt with rather lightly in the book, comparatively).
ES: I didnâ€™t really have a process, per se, at least that Iâ€™m aware of. I have my own library of books, and there are also great sources of information on the Internet — yes, including Wikipedia! But also literally millions of academic papers, not to mention whole books on Google that you can snag for free.
What did you leave on the cutting room floor? Is there a second volume to come, of â€œHistoryâ€™s Interesting But Really Not-the-Best Bitsâ€?
ES: A lot. I forget most of the stuff that got cut, but off the top of my head, we left out Vlad â€œThe Impalerâ€ Tepes, Chinese foot-binding, and the 19th-century practice of Filibustering, when American citizens raised private armies to take over Latin American countries, and sometimes succeeded (e.g., William Walker, known as â€œthe Grey-Eyed Man of Destinyâ€ to his many admirers, who made himself president of Nicaragua for a year).
When I took World History in the 10th grade, my teacher spent so much time on the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans that, in order to discuss the 20th century, she had to skip the 15 centuries that preceded it. Was there any point where you thought, canâ€™t we just skip ahead to the Luftwaffe?
ES: I find ancient history just as interesting as the more recent stuff, though I will admit I was slightly bummed I didnâ€™t get to write about World War II or the Cold War (actually, I probably would have ended up just rhapsodizing about Soviet military hardware). But as long as an era has some recognizable, engaging personalities I can get into itâ€¦ and hopefully convey whatâ€™s so engaging about it.
If there was an era you could just write out of the history books, what would it be?
ES: I think the last seven years could have gone better. Maybe we can get a do-over?