Book Review: The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits by Erik Sass, Will Pearson, and Steve Wiegand

“We know that 99% of ‘history’ as they teach it is mind-numbingly boring. And we’re sorry about that; we can’t change what happened in your youth,” is how this history of the world book starts out in the introduction by author Erik Sass, as an apology to all those that fell asleep in their history classes.

If we had only had this book as our text, we would have sat up straight and looked at all of our history teachers with new founded interest.

Co-authored by Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand, and co-authored some more by the guys who started Mental Floss in 2001 (Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattifudur), this is a great read!

From the red squared blurbs (which I found quite fascinating) to the actual text, you will be amazed that history is this candidly interesting. Did you know, for instance, that Napoleon’s little Napoleon was described as about one inch and the size of grape? This book is full of such tidbits and truly a rare find!

Chapter One starts with Africa and After (60,000 BC-1500 BC), “In a Nutshell,” and immediately gets you hooked. We, as human beings, are always hungry. Hunger motivates everything we do. If you are really in an all-fired hurry and are one of those lists persons, Sass and Wiegand have conveniently provided lists throughout the book to help summarized the passage of time. And the passage of time covers happenings in Egypt, India, China, and even Australia (surmised by the heading ‘Where you can get away from it all’)

Chapter Two is Chaos and Control (1500 BC-500 BC), and includes the “In a Nutshell,” which has happenings in Greece, what was happening to Jewish people, and other interesting facts. 

Chapter Three deals with Athens, Alexander and ends the BC era and Chapter Four gets into AD, which deals primarily with Rome and its people and accomplishments but also makes mention of China, Persia, India, Mexico, and gives a very detailed red blurb on the invention of cold cream - which, by the way, I have always wondered about.

Chapter Five and Six bring us to the Dark Ages, and give us new perspectives on the time period. When Rome fell, a lot fell with it and plunged us into the Dark Ages, which, incidentally seemed to be a European crisis and other parts of the world were doing fine (think Mayan civilization at its peak).

I especially enjoyed the section of the Black Death, probably because I was reading it in my fuzzy bathrobe at the time with a nice cup of tea sitting beside me thinking ‘Goodness, those ancient people were dirty’.

The disease started on a flea, which was on a rat, and you get the idea…then they threw the puss-filled dead bodies out into the street OR as enterprising Tartars did - they loaded their catapults full of the disease-laden corpses and flung them at their enemies and thus won their war. 
After the Dark Ages, so many people had died of the plague that there was suddenly a hole in the population that had to be filled. The hole was filled with the survivors who suddenly had enough to eat (since their comrades had perished), and in that void, there was a surge of learning and people started to reconnect to their past and this laid the foundation for modern society. This is Chapter Seven and the middle of the book.

The last half of the book deals with mankind’s upward battle to be even more civilized and upbeat. There are wonderful insets that deal with the invention of the printing press, the health value of beer (as it started out), and the rise of the popularity of tea (actually not until the seventeenth century). 

There is even a lovely tribute to Canada in the last section (Appendix: Oh, Yes, Canada) of the book, in which the loyalties of Canada during the Revolutionary War are explained.

I must confess, the issue of Canada has always confused me and I was glad to have this cleared up. Also many Canadian comedians have made it their mission to perpetually amuse us Americans, and for that we are extremely grateful.  

Told with wit in brief sections that are clearly marked by culture or country, I was very much enthralled with this book. For those people looking for a quick historical fix, this can be read in small doses or all at once.

I preferred the small doses, and would actually skip from modern to middle ages and back again. It’s like your own little time machine and made even better because it makes you snicker with glee that you are sitting in your fuzzy bathrobe drinking tea in a pretty darn good time period (and at the same time are extremely grateful for modern medicine, science, the printing press, cold cream, and beer).

It is a great reference, also, and I highly recommend it, for sheer amusement or for any history buff who likes a good laugh. It really makes history worthwhile.

Further Reading on M&C