The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits

( 34 )

Overview

Pop quiz! Who said what about history?

History is . . .
(a) more or less bunk.
(b) a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.
(c) as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.

...

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The Mental Floss History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits

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Overview

Pop quiz! Who said what about history?

History is . . .
(a) more or less bunk.
(b) a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.
(c) as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.

Match your answers:
(1) Stephen Daedalus of James Joyce's Ulysses
(2) Henry Ford
(3) Arthur Schopenhauer

It turns out that the answer need not be bunk, nightmarish, or diseased. In the hands of mental_floss, history's most interesting bits have been handpicked and roasted to perfection. Packed with little-known stories and outrageous—but accurate—facts, you'll laugh yourself smarter on this joyride through 60,000 years of human civilization.

Remember: just because it's true doesn't mean it's boring!

Now with Breaking News

"If You Thought the Last Depression Was Great . . ."

Answers: (a) 2 (b) 1 (c) 3

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Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Sass and Wiegand do an admirable job of covering 60,000 years of human history in one volume. Along with the names of people and places, the dates and statistics, the wars, disasters, revelations, and accomplishments, there are fascinating stories, hilarious oddities, and plenty of fun. Nearly every page has a sidebar entry or two that fit well with the general narrative and also provide a chuckle or a "Wow, I didn't know that!" reaction. In 12 chapters with titles such as "Athens, Alexander, and All That" and "The Not-Really-That-Dark (Unless You Lived in Europe) Ages," the authors cover our collective story from the earliest Homo sapiens on the grasslands of Africa to the current debate on global warming. Each chapter begins with a helpful "In a Nutshell" summary and a chronology of major events and ends with a well-selected list of comparative statistics. While some may bemoan the lack of bibliographic references and other academic fixtures, others will cheer this clever packaging of a wealth of information.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA

From the Publisher
"Heller and the boys from Mental Floss just know that it's easier to listen to history when it's presented as fun instead of a chore." —-AudioFile
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060784775
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2008
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Erik Sass is a journalist based in Los Angeles with branch offices around the country. When not writing for mental_floss, he reports on the media and advertising business for MediaPost.com.

An award-winning political journalist and history writer for more than three decades, Steve Wiegand has worked as a reporter and columnist for the San Diego Evening Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee, where he currently covers state government and politics.

During his career, he has interviewed four presidents and six California governors—and has the dubious distinction of once being airsick and throwing up on the shoes of the state attorney general's wife.

It may have been his greatest personal contribution to world history.

Wiegand is a graduate of Santa Clara University, where he majored in American literature and U.S. history. He also holds a Master of Science degree in Mass Communications from California State University, San Jose.

In addition to The mental_floss History of the World, Wiegand is the author of U.S. History for Dummies, Sacramento Tapestry, and Papers of Permanence, a contributing author to mental_floss presents: Forbidden Knowledge, and a frequent contributor to mental_floss magazine.

He lives in Northern California.

Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur met as first year students at Duke University. Ignoring the lures of law school and investment banking, the pair co-founded mental_floss and have been grinning ever since. Maggie Koerth-Baker is a freelance journalist and a former assistant editor at mental_floss magazine, where she consistently astounded Will and Mangesh with her amazingness.

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Read an Excerpt

The Mental Floss History of the World
An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits

Chapter One

Africa and After
(60,000 BCE-1500 BCE)

In a nutshell

If there's one thing you can say about human beings, it's that we're always hungry. When modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) left Africa to conquer the globe more than sixty thousand years ago, they settled near sources of food, and those areas that produced more food became more populated. Some groups found forests with game to hunt, while others wandered grasslands, tending herds of cows. In Stone Age Mexico, coastal peoples subsisted on shellfish for thousands of years, leaving a huge heap of clam shells 240 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 21 feet tall.

Another thing about us: we don't like to share. Tribes constantly battled for territory, and some were pushed into less friendly environments—but nomads made the best use of limited resources. Arabs conquered the vast Arabian Peninsula by taming the camel, a hardy desert animal that carried them between lush oases. Central Asians took to horse- and sheepherding, ranging across thousands of miles in search of rare good pastures. Inuit learned to build homes out of ice.

But in terms of calories per acre, grain cultivation feeds many more people than fishing, hunting, or raising domestic animals. Grain cultivation began around 9000 BCE and soon spread around the world, and places that grew grain experienced a population explosion (oh yeah, apparently we also like to have sex . . . a lot). Soon, there was so much food that somepeople could stop working in the fields and specialize in crafts. Expert potters, weavers, and masons were soon followed by tailors, leather tanners, miners, and other trades. Yes, that includes "the world's oldest profession."

Around 8000 BCE, the world's first civilizations—defined as people living in cities—began appearing. The craftspeople lived together in encampments for safety against rival groups and for convenience of trade. Cities also became centers of government—in most cases, likely a hereditary monarchy descended from old tribal authority. Little is known about the world's first governments, but they were probably dominated by a single family or clan passing authority from generation to generation, with a dominant man becoming ruler each time. In prehistory, governments along matriarchal (woman-centered) or communal (leaderless) lines may have existed, but by the beginning of recorded history, these had been snuffed out. Each of the world's first civilizations was ruled by one man, a king. Men have hogged the remote ever since.

The king's job was simple: to protect his followers. In general, the people believed that the king's authority came from the immortal gods, so kings were closely associated with religion from the get-go. In some places the king was also the high priest, in charge of sacrificial offerings and ceremonies intended to bring good harvests. In other places, the king worked closely with the high priest or employed soothsayers to help divine the future.

While rival kings could cause trouble, the biggest enemy facing early civilizations was nature itself, which operated at the will of invisible gods. Droughts, floods, and other natural disasters could destroy crops, bringing starvation and misery. Translation: If everyone had enough to eat, the gods were happy with the leader; if there wasn't enough to eat, well . . . It's no surprise that across the "civilized" world, each ruler's first act was to store grain against hard times.

To make this food-insurance system work, kings ordered their subjects to turn over some grain during good times, which could be distributed again in an emergency. Grain was stored in huge stone or mud-brick silos, called granaries. Priests were in charge of keeping track of which grain had come from which landowner.

To help remember the grainy details, priests invented writing. Recording quantities, names, and dates on clay tablets in turn led to accounting and banking. Soon regular people began quantifying goods such as livestock, tools, and luxury items. As writing spread to society at large, merchants, bankers, and scribes joined the other craftsmen who lived in cities. Writing led to the first commercial contracts (e.g., "for these four pigs, you bring me two cows in three days"—we're not saying it was glamorous).

However, not every culture chose to settle down and farm. The differences between cities and nomadic groups created a lot of friction. For one thing the cities' accumulation of wealth, in the form of surplus grain and other goods, naturally attracted attention from people living a more marginal existence outside the cities. Nomads often enjoyed a tactical advantage over city folk, and men from the wilds, skilled in horse-mounted warfare, have long terrified the simple farmer on the outskirts of town. The nomadic threat still exists today—but by 1500 BCE, the power of settled societies based on farming was already uncontestable. The history of civilization is their story.

What Happened When

2,500,000 BCE
Homo habilis, earliest protohuman ancestor, uses stone tools in Africa.

2,000,000 BCE
Various protohuman ancestors spread out across the planet.

1,500,000 BCE
Hominids master fire.

300,000 BCE
Neanderthals live in Europe.

150,000 BCE
The Sahara is a lush grassland.

130,000 BCE
Modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, appear in Africa.

60,000 BCE
Homo sapiens sapiens spread out over the planet.

10,000 BCE
Polar ice caps begin to melt, raising sea levels four hundred feet.

9000 BCE
The Natufian culture domesticates wheat, inventing agriculture.

7500 BCE
The world's first cities emerge at Catal Huyuk and Jericho.

5,300 BCE
The Sahara has become a desert.

5000 BCE
Catal Huyuk and Jericho are mysteriously abandoned.

4500 BCE
The first Sumerian cities, Eridu and Ur, are founded.

4000 BCE
The first cities are founded in Egypt.

3100 BCE
Egypt is united by the pharaohs and becomes the world's first state.

3000 BCE
China's first civilization begins (Longshan culture).

2600 BCE
Harappan civilization flourishes in the Indus River Valley.

2530 BCE
Egyptians complete the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

2200 BCE
Babylon is founded by the Amorites.

1900 BCE
China's first royal family, the Xia dynasty, rules.

1750 BCE
Abraham leaves Ur for Canaan.

1700 BCE
Harappan civilization disappears.

1600 BCE
Indo-Europeans establish Hittite and Mitanni kingdoms in Mesopotamia.

The Mental Floss History of the World
An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits
. Copyright © by Erik Sass. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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( 34 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    EXCELLENT

    This is an excellent, interesting, exciting and easy to read account of world history. One of my fav books ever!!!! Highly recommend it!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    An Unusual Look at History

    This book discusses history from a different point of view, sometimes funny, sometimes scary, but always interesting. I enjoyed it partially because it's the type of book you can read in spare moments and not be concerned with loosing track of the story. The information and interpretations are often different from the traditionally accepted version but are plausible and entertaining. It's a fun book to read if you like history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    This book does an adequate job covering world history. It is,

    This book does an adequate job covering world history. It is, however written for those that don't know anything about history, playing to the lowest common denominator. It has a good flow to it, although there are snarky remarks that make it seem like it was written by Happy Gilmore. There is some bias to it regarding modern times, but not nearly as bad as Howard Zinn's work.

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  • Posted January 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Good overview of nearly everything

    The book is just what it claims to be : if you meet an alien at a cocktail party and he ( she? it?) asks you about the history of your civilization , you can just read this book aloud. Of course, it is somewhat sketchy and superficial by necessity, and you'll find a minor error here and there. But on the other hand even a most devoted history fan will find in it something he ( she? it?) didn't know. Very easily read. No illustrations, though. And it would be a good idea to include a "Recommended for more information about that..." section in the end.
    I grade the books as Buy and Keep (BK), Read Library book and Return ( RLR) and Once I Put it Down I Couldn't Pick it Up ( OIPD-ICPU). I would give this one a BK ( as a fun reference to have).

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  • Posted October 31, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a fun way to look at the history of the world

    This is a fun way to look at the history of the world (in 400 pages) as the mental Floss crowd provides their irreverent glimpse back in time and for a few pages the Great Bush Recession. With twelve chapters divided by eras, an appendix on Oh Canada and of course that Great Bush Recession, readers get a taste of chicken beer historical trivia. The reference tome includes chronological and locality asides, but mostly focuses on the who's who of the past and who they are doing it to; and not just Europe and North America; as Chapter 4 aptly represents the book with its "There's No Place Like Rome (Except China, Persia India, Mexico and Peru). Amusing and hip even when discussing pestilence, disease and war like how the great plague limited the great Justinian or that six battles on the western front in WW I resulted in at least 250,000 dead or there is a bit of land beyond the Hudson. Whether it is invoking divine approval by Sumerians, Persians, or Americans, this is an engaging look at the world's historical foibles even during critical pivotal points missed by that much by the Third Estate (some things remain the same whether the coverage is the French Revolution, Imperialism in Africa or The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars). The Mental Floss History of the World provides as Paul Harvey would say "the rest of the story". Did Abraham really give up that beach front property to his nephew?

    Harriet Klausner

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2009

    Extremely entertaining but still informative

    This is a terrific book. I have been reading 3 or 4 pages a night and I always fall asleep laughing. The book has the approrpriate balance of information and tongue in cheek humor. I don't write reviews but felt strongly enough to write this one.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Historical and Hysterical!

    I found the Mental Floss History of the World book to be witty and entertaining. I plan to use stories from the book to highlight my own World History class!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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