I’m a recent convert to the mental_floss family of products; my brother has been a subscriber to the magazine for several years (or was, at any rate), and has read most or all of the books. I read one last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. When he showed up in town last Christmas toting the new Mental Floss History of the World, I decided to read it it as soon as the local library carried a copy.
I had to constantly remind myself that despite the “irreverent romp” bit in the book’s subtitle, this is not America the Book or something from The Onion and it is not, in fact, full of sneering, jokes, and embellishments. In fact, it’s a rather straightforward compendium of condensed history, with occasional end-of-paragraph zingers to lighten the mood (most of history is rather depressing, as you’ll find).
If I had to level one criticism at History of the World, it’s that its scope is necessarily limited by the sheer timespan it tries to cover. World War II, for instance, gets a remarkably small number of words devoted to it. It’s necessary, because given the millennial range, a sufficient treatment of all historical events would require a book of William Vollman proportions.
In stark contrast to both America the Book—which was naturally very Western—and say, The Onion’s Our Dumb World—which, though global, tended to focus much on the poorer and less developed parts of the world, which are an untapped realm as far as cynical sociopolitical comedy is concerned—History of the World tries to draw is expository brushstrokes over an expansive (and even!) global swath. Each chapter, in fact, after its introductory chapter summary and timeline, breaks out events by continent/region/empire first, before speaking generally about the highs and lows of the period, rounding out with a thinly-connected stream of trivia. My brother thinks the book is still a little Western in its focus (and least once there is a West), though I’m not so sure that its quite so much a consequence of bias as of the locus of progression shifting from East to West (at least for the bulk of the book’s latter half).
Though I think highly of the book’s quality, I can’t help but feel as though its brevity borders on glibness. There’s a tendency among books that distill large and complex history down into digestible chunks (whether its a grade-school history textbook or a “History for Dummies” kind of political science book) to either gloss over important distinctions, ellipse interesting periods of history in pursuit of concision, and focus on anecdotes which are sexy rather than weighty. History of the World does fall prey to some of this, but I know from reading mental_floss material that the authors usually do a pretty good and thorough job—within reasonable expectation, anyway, given the scope—and this book is no exception to that general rule. Despite its subtitle, it’s not really irreverent, nor a romp; neither does it do for history what Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything did for science. But A Mental Floss History of the World is a good book regardless, and worth a try if you’re in the mood for this kind of reading.