My World History teacher in high school, Mrs. Rivers, was less than efficient in her use of verbiage. While lecturing about the Peloponnesian Wars or the Roman aqueducts, she would adorn her stories with so many verbal-tic qualifiers â€“ â€œif you will,â€ â€œshall we say,â€ â€œI say to youâ€ â€“ that a pair of dorks in the back of the classroom invented a game they called â€œShall-We-Say Baseballâ€ to pass the time. (I donâ€™t remember which rarely used phrase prompted a home run, but I do remember the whispered cheers that emanated from their table whenever one was scored.) Anyway, Mrs. Rivers spent so much time on her qualifiers that she arrived at school one day in February and realized she was still talking about the sacking of Rome by the Huns. So she announced that morning that, following our unit test, we would be skipping ahead to World War I in order to hit the key points in the standard curriculum.
Thank goodness, then, for The Mental Floss History of the World â€“ 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. Theyâ€™ve done it with bite-size tidbits of trivia and explorations of entire epochs â€“ as well as discussions of science and economics that make those subjects as accessible as theyâ€™re ever going to get. And theyâ€™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 â€“ heck, even Mel Brooks couldnâ€™t get past Part I.
The new bookâ€™s subtitle, â€œAn Irreverent Romp Through Civilizationâ€™s Best Bits,â€ offers a clue to the magic involved in condensing roughly 62,000 years of human history (or one-tenth that much, if youâ€™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 â€“ 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) â€¦ well, she probably wouldnâ€™t have gotten past the popular practice of between-meal vomiting (Rome, 1st century BC).
With help from â€œthe editors of mental_flossâ€ â€“ which I assume means, â€œwith material we borrowed from back issues of the magazineâ€ â€“ authors Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand â€œspin the globeâ€ to make sure that the material doesnâ€™t get too Euro-centric (even if ancient Africa gets kinda short shrift â€“ 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 â€œupsâ€ and â€œdownsâ€ of various civilizations and ethnic groups â€“ for some reason, the Jews are usually â€œdownâ€ (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 â€“ 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 â€“ for those moments when Us Weekly or The Wit and Wisdom of Sarah Palin simply donâ€™t provide enough substance. If you require 300 pages on the impact of the Reformation on confessionalization in Upper Franconia, donâ€™t look for it here â€“ look there. But even if youâ€™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, â€œThanks, but no thanks forâ€¦â€ Chapter 7â€™s entry? Syphilis!
Buy The Mental Floss History of the World at Amazon.