Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Attrocities needs to win some kind of award. It bravely goes where other history books fear to tread, and it may be the best book I will read this year. I have had my head in it off and on for the past three months, and I have been constantly amazed at how deftly the author has pulled off this gargantuan task.
Instead of just telling history via the traditional route—the rise and fall of nations and empires, the victors of battles, the ideological struggles, and the court intrigues of kings and queens—White also keeps his eye on the millions upon millions of people who have lost their lives due to human violence and indifference.
Author Steven Pinker writes in his Foreword to the book:
[White's] scorn is directed at the stupidity and callousness of history’s great leaders, at the statistical innumeracy and historical ignorance of various ideologues and propagandists, and at the indifference of traditional history to the magnitude of human suffering behind momentous events.”
If ever there was a book to appeal to the better angels of our nature, this is it.
White, a librarian in Virginia by day, is a self-described atrocitologist. Until the publication of this book, he has been best known as the creator of the online Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century. Data from this web resource has been cited by 377 published books and 183 scholarly articles according to the book jacket. (Insert Ask a Librarian commercial here.)
White loves statistics, and he knows the numbers people want to argue about the most are death tolls. He also knows that people will argue over his death toll estimates in this book. The important thing is, he didn’t let this stop him from producing this important work.
White covers the 100 deadliest multicides beginning with the Second Persian War (480-479 BC, death toll: 300,000) to the Second Congo War (1998-2002, death toll: 3.8 million). For each entry, he gives us good historical background, lists the type of multicide involved (i.e. civil war, failed state, ethnic cleansing, religious conflict, etc.), names the major players and any secondary participants, and tells us who usually gets the most blame.
Following the individual entries, White provides an analysis, gives us a look at the raw numbers, discusses runner-up and disqualified events, and provides a note on perspective: future historians, he writes, may view 20th century events—from the First World War to the deaths of Hitler, Stalin and Mao—as “a single massive upheaval…which took the lives of some 150 million people.”
Real students of history may disagree, but for this dabbler in history, there were dozens of fascinating revelations. I’ll just share a few:
• I would have assumed that Europe would have been the site of the most destructive war related to Christian ideology. I would be wrong. It happened in China (Taiping Rebellion, 1850-64, death toll: 20 million), when Christian-convert Hong Xiuquan came to believe he was the new Son of God, the younger brother of Jesus.
• If you think the Twentieth Century was the deadliest in history, you’re right. Some of the very worst atrocities take place in that century: Second World War, death toll: 66 million; Mao Zedong’s rein, death toll: 40 million; Joseph Stalin’s rein, death toll: 20 million; First World War, death toll: 15 million; Russian Civil War, death toll: 9 million; Chinese Civil War, death toll: 7 million. Plus, two multicides stretched into the Twentieth Century: Famines in British India (18th-20th centuries, death toll: 27 million) and Congo Free State (1885-1908, death toll: 10 million).
• I was surprised to see those Famines in British India ranked as the fourth worst atrocity in history. Typically, we think famines are caused by nature, the departure of the rains. But White shows how famines are often caused by human conflict or greed. In this particular case, the famines in India were caused by commercial exploitation, and an inept and uncaring Britain that worried more about profit.
• War kills more civilians than soldiers. Turns out, “the army is usually the safest place to be during a war.”
• Some of the entries you would expect to find under their own big headings are part of larger narratives. For example, the Holocaust toll is part of the Second World War toll. Likewise, the Trail of Tears is part of a larger entry: The Conquest of the Americas after 1492, death toll: 15 million.
I could go on and on, but you need to experience this book for yourself. Every library needs a copy. Everyone who cares about the future of our world needs to give it a look.
Oh, and the next time you hear someone advocating a little revisionist history—you know, like the Holocaust didn’t happen, or the Atlantic Slave Trade (1452-1807; death toll: 16 million) should just be called the Trans-Atlantic Trade, do me a favor: throw this book at them. It’s big and heavy and should knock some sense into them.
We humans are a curious lot. We like to see ourselves above nature—higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. We often fool ourselves, believing we are in control of the natural world that surrounds our homes, schools and businesses. Well, at least until the next tornado, earthquake, flood, famine or disease comes along.
Even people who know full well how interconnected we are to the natural world can experience eureka moments of understanding. It happened to journalist and food author Michael Pollan one day while he was watching a bee move from flower to flower. He marveled that the bee really had no understanding of its role in the plant’s reproductive cycle.
And then Pollan was struck by the fact that he was in the middle of planting potatoes in his garden. Potatoes! He was servicing a tuberous root that was domesticated thousands of years ago by the Incas in South America. Human beings have spent centuries helping the potato spread across the planet. That’s when Pollan’s 2001 book, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World was conceived.
Pollan looks at four plants in Botany of Desire, and explains how a particular attraction humans have for each of the plants has led us to move heaven and earth to cultivate them across the world. Because of our desires, we have made them four of the most successful plants in history.
Our pursuit of sweetness has made the Apple the most popular fruit on earth. Our love of beauty has made the Tulip a star. Our desire to get high has made Cannibis one of the most modified plants in the world. Finally, our history with the Potato is a compelling reflection of our desire for control in a chaotic world.
Pollan’s book is filled with histories and stories that will make you look at our relationship with these plants in a whole new way. You’ll see Johnny Appleseed in a completely different light. If you think the Housing Bubble is bad, wait until you read about the Tulip Bubble. You’ll see how we’ve changed Cannibis from a tall, ugly weed into a compact beauty that can be grown indoors (so as not to alert the authorities). And you’ll discover the dangers of monocultures (think Irish Potato Famine) as you follow the potato from its Inca origins to the french fries you buy at McDonald’s. (We’ve even grown potatoes in space!)
PBS was so impressed with Pollan’s groundbreaking 2001 book that it commissioned a documentary based on it. You can explore for yourself online, but don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the printed version. After all, the book is always better.
“In August 1973, three weeks past my seventeenth birthday, I packed my clothes in three hand-me-down Samsonite suitcases and left the only place I had ever called home.”
Anita Hill looks at the meaning of home in this series of stories that trace a journey from her family’s move to the “promised land” of Oklahoma to today’s sub-prime mortgage crisis. In Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home, Hill demonstrates how this search for a better place—a place to call home—has been stymied for far too long for many of our citizens by “institutional incentives that encourage separation.”
The search for home, of course, goes beyond the four walls—to the neighborhood, the community, and even the nation where we feel we belong. Our search begins with ourselves and our own family history:
When I began to explore my family history, I was in search of the perfect past. What I found were surprises and a messy, complicated reality that forced me to abandon the myths that filled my head about family, progress, and success.”
Hill discovers that the system established following slavery, to correct slavery’s depravities, had failed her ancestors. And yet, Hill’s ancestors “dared to imagine” a better place for themselves and their children.
This need for home runs deep in the American soul. From the first Euro-American settlers, to Abigail Adam’s arguments for women’s legal protections in their own homes, to commerce secretary Herbert Hoover’s Own Your Own Home campaign, to the twentieth century migration of blacks to the North, to George W. Bush’s Ownership Society, it is a need that has framed our national conversation.
Hill’s stories synthesize this history and conversation with personal reflections from herself and others, race and gender issues, government policies, and our enduring dreams for a better life.
After establishing the links among home, belonging, achievement and success, Hill calls for a new vision amidst the current housing crisis that has brought a great nation to its knees. This vision can take inspiration from the social networking communities that are being embraced, especially by younger citizens, as well as the story of President Obama, who’s “fervent search for home brought him to the presidency…”
The vision? “…not of movement, but one of place; not one of tolerance, but one of belonging; not just of rights, but also of community—a community of equals” Such a vision, Hill argues, could make an inclusive American Democracy where all of us feel at home.
This is a beautifully written, hopeful book.
Oklahoma Almanac editor Connie Armstrong loves to read history books. This is not surprising since history was her major and she taught the subject at Redlands Community College. I actually saw her with a fiction book recently and almost fell out of my chair. But history is her first love. When I caught her reading Chris Matthews’s new book on our 35th president, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, I knew I wanted to ask my friend and colleague her thoughts on the work.
Q: There are a tremendous number of books about John Kennedy and his presidency, so I’m surprised Matthews subtitled the book “Elusive Hero.” What’s your take on that?
A: “Elusive Hero,” is a term used by Jackie Kennedy as she described her late husband to Life Magazine reporter Teddy White in late November 1963. She wanted the world to understand the man rather than the politician or war hero. During the interview, she described Jack Kennedy as a simple yet complex individual; someone just out of our grasp.
Q: I’ve caught Matthews’s show on MSNBC from time to time, and viewers can tell he has a great amount of respect for Kennedy. Was this book a love fest to the man?
A: Initially, I thought it would be love fest for Kennedy. Early in the book Matthews explains that as a young man he became enamored with Kennedy, although he grew up in a Republican household where Eisenhower was revered as a great leader. However, Matthew provides a well-balanced account of Kennedy’s personal life and political career. He does not ignore Kennedy’s failings or personal flaws.
Q: You’re a student of American History and know more than most of us about the machinations and personalities of Washington, D.C. What were some of the surprising things you learned from reading this book?
A: I’ve studied Kennedy for many years, and taught a college course on his assassination. I don’t think anything surprised me. The book reminded me that politics can be a blood sport. Kennedy took no prisoners when it came to winning campaigns. However, I do think many people may be surprised at the respect Kennedy had for Richard Nixon, and the friendship the two shared.
Q: The assassination of President Kennedy is a watershed moment, and many have identified it as the time we lost our innocence as a country. Does Matthews speculate about how different America might be had Kennedy not been killed?
A: No, Matthews does not look at a post-Kennedy America in a “what might have been” scenario. He does, however, look at the goals Kennedy pursued such as civil rights, NASA and America’s space program, the Peace Corps, and even the fall of the Berlin Wall that came to fruition in the years following the assassination.
Q: Does Matthews weigh in on the Warren Commission Report? Any smoking guns, like another shooter in the grassy knoll?
A: No. He does examine a question Kennedy put forth to Texas Governor John Connelly on the morning of November 22, 1963. Kennedy inquired why Fort Worth remained a Democratic stronghold, while Dallas had gone Republican.
(Note: Mathews talks about Connelly’s take on the difference between 1963 politics in Fort Worth and Dallas in this Hardball blog post.)
Q: What’s the lasting impression you take away from this book?
A: That Kennedy was a student of history since his childhood. His political policy decisions were based on his knowledge of history. I’m grateful for that. He understood appeasement, the growing threat of Communism, and yet understood what the Soviet Union had endured during World War II. If Richard Nixon had been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the outcome could have been devastating.
Q: Finally, do you think Kennedy could be a successful politician today?
Read an excerpt from the book online.
Anybody out there read this latest bio on Kennedy? Let us know what you think.
The great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warns us that contact with alien life may not be in our best interest. After all, human history shows all too well how indigenous peoples suffer at the hands of a more technologically-advanced society.
The laws of space and time suggest that such visitations are probably not in our future. Still, if we were to awake one morning to find mother ships overhead, I suspect that a nervous Earth might hear our visitors say something like the following. (Note: just replace “Indians” with “Earthlings”):
“The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.”
—[Secton 14, Article 3, Northwest Ordinance of U.S. Congress, July 13, 1787
This quote introduces Chapter 5—“What’s mine is mine. What’s yours is mine!”—of Conscience: Breaching Social Amnesia by vehoae. In the author’s first book, she illustrates, through exhaustive research, how the perspectives and motivations of the European invaders and their progeny influenced the rhetoric, politics, and decision-making of the day regarding the continent’s Indian Nations.
Beyond the dishonest diplomacy practiced with the tribes, we are treated to the views and arguments of political and religious leaders as they sought a solution to the Indian problem. Such quotes and primary document details trace the discussions of extermination, assimilation and segregation of the tribes from early European settlement to the days of the Indian Boarding Schools.
It’s an uncomfortable history, of course. Reading about the worse angels of our nature (if I may twist the resurrected Lincoln quote) should make us feel uncomfortable. Seeing an unflattering side of American statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson strikes at our patriotic heart.
We know this truth about our past, but some Americans would just like us to forget about it. But vehoae says, “No, look. This is what we did. Here is the proof.” Her appendix, exhibits, bibliography and end note citations take up a third of the book. (I wasn’t kidding about exhaustive research.)
While at the University of Oklahoma in the late 70s, I was lucky enough to have a class with Dr. Jerry Steffen, who warned us about condemning past generations. The future will laugh at us, and condemn us, too, he said. He reminded us to always consider past history in light of the times. This did not mean we should not pass judgements on cruelties of the past. It meant that by understanding the period of history, we could understand why such cruelties happened.
There is no advantage to ignoring our history, but there is much to gain by confronting painful truths. For what better way will we truly find the better angels of our nature?
Visit vehoae’s website to find out more about the author, her interests and her work.
Read an interview with the author, where she discusses her book and the writers that inspired her. Plus, she provides a host of research tips for non-fiction writers!
Good Lord, is it ever hot!! But what a great excuse to stay in the cool, or find an exceptionally generous shade tree to park yourself under, during the extreme heat. And what better friend to bring along than a book? Here’s what I’ve been reading…
The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States by Gordon S. Wood
The Gist: Putltzer Prize Winner Brown takes a page from both the traditionalist view (An Idea drove us toward Revolution) and the early twentieth-century progressive view (Ideas don’t create revolutions; cultural, social and economic conditions do) to plot a middle ground in these essays exploring the birth and early years of the Republic. Yet, in doing so, he reveals how the “idea” and “ideals” of a self-governing country remain America’s strongest suit. Indeed, in much of the world, America is an idea to adopt, and an ideal to strive for.
Status: Read intro, conclusions and selected essays.
Summer Escapism: C (This is not a bad thing. You can’t help but reflect on our current government and economic woes while reading this book. You’re learning and thinking. You’re not really escaping. And that’s a good thing.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: A
Social Relevance: A+ (In the Post-Great Recession, as in so many other times of crisis in our country, Americans often turn to America’s beginnings for renewal. Would that they also were inclined to turn to our country’s historians and read more to enlighten themselves about our great land before shooting their mouths off.)
General Reaction: For Brown, the beginning and early formation of America remain the most important events in our country’s history, and he presents a convincing case for this through his essays. The intellectual and ideological values we hold dear, the creation of both a public and private sphere of rights (which our courts must traverse), and our feelings about America’s place and role in the world, have all been influenced (and continue to be) by the Idea of America. Brown’s specialty is the American Revolution, and you know you are in the company of a great mind when reading this book.
Embassytown by China Miéville
The Gist: Humanity has colonized space. Embassytown is a human settlement on the planet of the native Ariekei, sentient beings with a language unique in the known universe. The problems of communication between Ariekei and humans lead to catastrophe and, ultimately, revelation and transcendence for the Ariekei.
Status: Gobbled it up!
Summer Escapism: A (For sci-fi fans, that is.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: A (Interesting take on language and its impact on culture and progress. Plus, you’ll never look at lying the same way again!)
Social Relevance: B (It’s always relevant to explore differences, and the importance of finding common ground.)
General Reaction: I have to tell you, I wasn’t sure that Miéville was going to be able to pull this off. But he does, and it’s a wonder to read. The book has mystery (why are the Arikei trying to make “figures of speech” out of neighboring humans?), excellent characters (especially human protagonist Avice Benner Cho), adventure, conspiracy, war, and an intriguing and satisfying conclusion. He just bats it out of the park!
OK, it’s your turn. What have you been reading during this hellish summer?
Tony Williams’s America’s Beginnings: the Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character satisfies two goals. It provides the basics on important events that influenced the early nation and continue to shape us today. And it also serves as a springboard for further exploration and study.
Indeed, the entries on each event are so brief—no more than two to three pages—that many readers will probably come away with even more questions that need answering. And that, of course, can lead to a very good thing!
Also included are other events that are less well-known, (or is it just me who wasn’t paying attention in history class), like Shays’ Rebellion, an uprising that lead to calls for a stronger national government.
Even the Salem Witch Trials are included, since they have come to symbolize intolerance and persecution. And Ben Franklin and his Lightning Rod make the list since Franklin “would later use the fame he had acquired as a scientist to advance America’s struggle for liberty on the global stage.”
It’s a great gathering of events for budding historians or anyone who seeks a handy reference companion on Early American history.
Williams wrote the book in association with Colonial Williamsburg, the worlds largest living history museum.
For awhile there, from the late 60s to the early 80s, it looked like Oklahoma City might erase all architectural traces of its past. Urban renewal cleared whole blocks in an effort to create a modern downtown. Much of the cleared land remained vacant for years as businesses and people continued moving to the suburbs. By the time the city had learned its lesson about the importance of historic preservation to the life of a community, many of the city’s remarkable buildings were already gone.
Perhaps that hard lesson is what made the Skirvin Hotel such an important symbol to the city’s desire for growth and revitalization as the state approached its Centennial year. The hotel had a glorious start in 1911, grew in influence, struggled as Americans embraced their cars and the roadside motels, fell from grace, survived unsuccessful attempts at revival, and had ended up destitute, just waiting for the wrecking ball. But from the street, citizens still saw a beautiful work of art. They held cherished memories of this Grand Dame on Park Avenue. They had slept in its rooms, celebrated at its wedding receptions, dined with family and made business deals in its restaurants. Surely, we couldn’t let this gem go.
Skirvin, by Steve Lackmeyer and Jack Money, is the story of this venerable icon, from glory days to decline and remarkable rebirth as the Skirvin Hilton. But it’s also the story of what people can do when they share a dream.
I heard a rumor at the Skirvin booksigning at the hotel: a similar book may be in the works for Tulsa’s Mayo Hotel, recently restored and reborn as both a hotel and residential address. I can hope and cross my fingers. These two works would make such great bookends for my Oklahoma shelf!
Skirvin is available from Full Circle Bookstore.
Davis Joyce, my hero when it comes to describing Oklahoma history and values. He reminds us of our “real” cultural heritage. Here’s a recent video from Democracy Now. It certainly doesn’t do his discussion of these issues justice, it’s way too brief. But if you haven’t heard of Dr. Joyce or read some of his work, it’s time to do so.
After listening to the segment, check out his latest work published by University of Oklahoma Press, Alternative Oklahoma.
And for additional primary source information on the Tulsa Race Riots go to Oklahoma Crossroads.