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.
Santa brought my smart four-year-old grandniece a Rapunzel’s Tower for Christmas. She served me coffee in the tiny cups, breakfast on the tiny plates, and had me assist her as she painted the wallpaper with a magic brush and water, which revealed birds and other images amidst the tree branches. (We had a lot of fun.)
This gift is the latest in a series of toys and dolls she’s received that celebrate the world of princess fairy tales. For lack of a better term, she’s kinda princess-crazy. I found out that her cousins had even dressed her up as a princess on Christmas Eve. Goodness!
This morning, the princess craze came up during a meeting I had with fellow librarians and the fine folks at Sonic, America’s Drive-In. Adrienne and I from the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Emily from the Metropolitan Library System, and Nancy and Becky with Sonic were discussing plans for the 2012 Statewide Summer Reading Program. (Sonic has been a corporate partner for the program since way back in 1998. They’re the best!) When Nancy mentioned that Sonic provides toys with an educational component in their Wacky Pack children’s meals, as opposed to the Ariels and Sleeping Beauties found in other restaurant kid meals, I said that was great, and I admitted that I was having a problem with the whole princess thing. Just what kind of message are we sending to our young girls, anyway?
Becky noted the recent marketing strategy of making more toys and products in pink—including fishing tackle boxes and camouflage clothing!—to attract girls and women. She also mentioned a YouTube video of a young girl commenting on gender marketing. (See below.)
Once our meeting was over, I headed down to my car, started the engine, and turned on the radio, which was tuned to KGOU, an NPR station. Right then, on the Dianne Rehm Show, a woman was talking about pink toys! (Really, you can’t make this kind of stuff up.) Turns out the guest was Peggy Orenstein, who has much to say about gender marketing and its possible impact on girls in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. From the book description:
Pink and pretty or predatory and hardened, sexualized girlhood influences our daughters from infancy onward, telling them that how a girl looks matters more than who she is. Somewhere between the exhilarating rise of Girl Power in the 1990s and today, the pursuit of physical perfection has been recast as a source—the source—of female empowerment. And commercialization has spread the message faster and farther, reaching girls at ever-younger ages.”
You know when there are reality shows featuring toddlers in tiaras that there’s a problem. Still, like Orenstein, I tend to believe that girls will be girls, and boys will be boys. Why fight nature? But that doesn’t mean we need to harden the gender differences within our culture. More than anything, I think I share a belief with the author that children should be children. The author investigates her concerns like a master sleuth. More from the book description:
She visited Disneyland and the international toy fair, trolled American Girl Place and Pottery Barn Kids, and met beauty pageant parents with preschoolers tricked out like Vegas showgirls. She dissected the science, created an online avatar, and parsed the original fairy tales. The stakes turn out to be higher than she—or we—ever imagined: nothing less than the health, development, and futures of our girls.”
This is definitely a book I want to check out.
In another part of the forest, my smart eight-year-old grandnephew received a BB gun for Christmas. But that’s another story…
I adore my little niece and nephew. They are sweet, kind, intelligent children and they have loving parents who offer them unconditional love and who do a good job of teaching them right from wrong. It’s just that their “Great and Powerful Uncle Bill” (that’s how I sign my name in their gift books and greeting cards) tends to worry.
And before I leave you, here’s that YouTube video of young Riley ranting about pink toys.
It was just the facts, please, when it came to reading for my father. He loved non-fiction, particularly books and magazines on science and nature. He always questioned me and my sister about what attracted us to fiction. He enjoyed scripted television shows and movies, but he never liked reading short stories and novels. He equated “reading fiction” to “a waste of time.”
Published in book form now, In Praise of Reading and Fiction is Llosa’s tribute to fiction’s power to inspire individuals and whole societies, and to bridge the imaginary distances between different cultures:
Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. …the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas.”
Just as importantly, the worlds writers and readers imagine in the realm of fiction speak to our aspirations for a better reality:
When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute—the foundation of the human condition—and should be better.”
From the earliest tales our ancestors spun in firelit caves to the grand epics of literature, Llosa knows we and our world are better because of the stories we tell each other.
The rise in gas prices at the pump, the damage to one of Japan’s nuclear power plants, and the U.S. Congress’s inability to come up with anything resembling a national energy policy has me in the emotional dumps. And it made me want to pick up a book I’d read a few years ago: Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil by David Goodstein.
I didn’t expect a review of this great little book would make me feel better—I knew it wouldn’t. But it’s a good overview of the plight we find ourselves in, as China’s and India’s need for energy collides with America’s insatiable appetite for a finite resource.
Goodstein says the world is much closer to peak oil than we think. Peak oil is when demand for black gold outstrips the supply. America actually reached Dr. M. King Hubbert’s theoretical peak in the mid-70s when production at home declined:
…in 1956, Hubert predicted that the rate at which oil could be extracted from the lower forty-eight United States would peak around 1970 and decline rapidly after that. When his prediction was borne out, other oil geologists started paying serious attention.”
We solved the problem in the 1970s by importing more oil. By depending so much on imported oil, we have, as Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time magazine, “built our house at the base of a volacano (mideast turmoil).”
That U.S. peak back in the 70s may look like a cake walk compared to global peak oil. It’s impact on the economy, human well-being, and world peace could be devastating.
Goodstein reminds us that it is not just oil, but energy itself, that is finite (the law of conservation of energy). He reviews possible technological innovations that could help us; reminds us that these technological fixes do not yet exist; reminds us of the dangers of climate change that go hand-in-hand with fossil fuels; and explores other problems that come along with other energy sources, from coal to natural gas to nuclear energy.
All of this, of course, is bad news. But it’s good to know it, because we need to know what we’re up against.
Goodstein wrote this back in 2004, when Americans were paying $2 per gallon at the pump and screaming to high heaven. Prices went down and we went back to SUVs. It’s time to pick the book up again.
That’s the question that the approximately 2% to 3% of us (according to recent estimates) on the planet want to know. Science wants to know the reasons of heterosexual and homosexual development, too, and some intriguing answers are found in Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation by neuroscientist Simon LeVay.
In the nature vs. nurture debate over sexuality and other gender traits, nature seems to be winning the battle, and science is employing a variety of experiments and research to show how sex hormone levels during fetal development, genetics, and brain systems determine whether we develop as straight, gay or bi.
Dr. LeVay doesn’t necessarily break new ground here. What he does is provide an excellent round-up of the most up-to-date scientific theories and experiments, and then adds his own expert analysis.
Among the findings presented in the book:
• There is no actual evidence that family dynamics, learning, early sexual experiences or free choice play a role in the development of an individual’s sexuality.
• Testosterone plays the leading role in the sexual differentiation of the brain, and research points to testosterone levels during fetal development as having an impact on the development of an individual’s sexuality.
• Environmental factors that impact biological factors (such as prenatal stress, which alters testosterone levels) could have an impact on gender traits and sexuality in human beings. (They do in laboratory animals.)
• Other hormones, and the chromosomal sex of brain cells of the fetus, also play a role in determining sexuality.
• Estimates of heritability of homosexuality range from 30% to 50%, similar to heritability for many other psychological traits.
• Sexual orientation is linked to other gendered traits, and gay people express both gender-shifted traits and gender-typical traits.
The findings LeVay shares concerning the effect of hormones on fetal development were popularly introduced back in the 90′s when Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women was published. I read that book, and even gave a copy to my niece and her new husband as a wedding gift. (I know. I’m weird!)
Perhaps most importantly, LeVay presents the additional questions that need further study. This line of scientific inquiry has been going on for some decades now, and yet is still in its infancy. There is much more to discover.
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.
It’s not even Thanksgiving, and already I’ve seen my first top ten list of books for the year. This one comes courtesy of Library Journal magazine. It’s an inaugural list (pop the cork on the champagne!) and it reflects “fiction and nonfiction titles that stood out as the very best in 2010.” The list was compiled by a group of LJ Editors and librarians.
American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
How To Live, Or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press)
Room by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Crown)
The Passage by Justin Cronin (Ballantine)
The Tiger by John Vaillant (Knopf)
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (Random)
Walker Evans Decade by Decade text by James Crump (Hatje Cantz)
I can’t tell you how many times I see a top ten book list with titles I’ve never read. This year is different! I’ve read The Passage (see review here) and By Nightfall (review to come), and I’ve placed a hold on Room at my library. I even have Freedom on my nightstand, but I’m still not sure if I’m actually going to read it.
How ’bout you? Have you read any of these titles? If so, please share…
1. Recently having written a post on Picher, Oklahoma, a colleague noting my interest gave me a followup article in the September issue of Wired magazine, Welcome to Armageddon, USA. Written by Ben Paynter, it details the final throes in the death of an American city.
“Picher isn’t simply another boomtown gone bust. It’s emblematic of what happens when a modern city dies: A few people stay behind, trying to hold on to what they can. They are the new homesteaders, trying to civilize a wasteland at the end of the world.”
2. Interested in Roger Clemens, here’s the facts from the 2008 congressional hearings, given me by our US Documents librarian.
Guilty or not guilty: did Roger Clemens take steroids to help him improve his baseball game? These are the two congressional hearings that were held in 2008 when he plainly stated that he did not take steroids or any other performance-enhancing substances. But as we have heard these last two weeks he is now being indicted for taking just these substances. Here is what he said two years ago–
The “Mitchell Report,” volume two–
Give them a minute to download.
3. Young Bill and I have already gotten tickets and hotel reservations for the September 24-25 Celebration of Books in Tulsa. This is your get a move on reminder.
4. And to keep you chuckling until the long weekend, read Laurence Hughes’ Huffington Post post Books that Sell. What ad would you want to see in your favorite book?