Book Review: The Mental Floss History of the World

Gaining and keeping the average reader’s interest in history is a problem authors have faced for, well, probably most of history. One method is to try to liven things up with different takes or an unusual focus. That’s the promise of The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization’s Best Bits. It’s a promise not totally fulfilled.

The book approaches its subject like mental_floss magazine, trying to make gaining knowledge fun and accessible. Still, for the most part this 400+ page work is world history in a nutshell. In fact, each chapter starts with “In A Nutshell,” a summary of the time period it covers

The 12 chapters use the same format throughout. The satellite’s eye view of the nutshell is followed by a timeline of a dozen or so significant events. Additional detail is provided in four ensuing subsections. The first, “Spinning The Globe,” takes a generally geographic approach to looking at countries, empires, peoples or events. The other three look at a variety of events, people and trends — good, bad, silly or outrageous — impacting subjects as wide ranging as food, weapons, religion, alcohol and sex. Each chapter concludes with statistical information relevant to the time period, such as average life expectancy, population or the length of time it took to build or the size of certain structures. Throughout, there are sidebars on various events, kingdoms or personalities as well as items of trivia.

The consistent style makes this a world history work in which one chapter is not necessarily dependent on having read a prior chapter and it is easy to find the quickest summary for a chapter’s time period. Where the book falters, though, is in trying to live up to its subtitle.

Granted, The Mental Floss History of the World has a contemporary conversational tone and is replete with witticisms, puns and attempts at humorous asides. But it is irreverent only to the extent that including the history and development of the pretzel, gin or condoms as among “civilization’s best bits” is considered irreverence. While the digressions may be somewhat more interesting or entertaining than what appears in standard works of history, the fact remains that most of the book is, of necessity, a recounting of dates, empires, wars and personalities.

That said, authors Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand (also the author of U.S. History for Dummies) do a commendable job of telling civilization’s story. Moreover, they take the focus beyond “Western” civilization to freely incorporate Indian, African, South American and Asian history. While the reader might question some of the detours they take (one of the lengthiest sidebars deals with the various wars in the Mediterranean from roughly 500 BCE to 300 BCE), they have accomplished the unenviable task of producing a generally well written one volume history of the world.

Ultimately, though, The Mental Floss History of the World best serves as a incidental diversion for those who aren’t quite history buffs, a Reader’s Digest-type reference on broader historical topics or an excellent bathroom reader. It will not, though, make history’s list of the most entertaining romps through world history, irreverent or not.

Hunger is a great motivator[.]

The Mental Floss History of the World

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