Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Review: The Great Big Book of Horrible Things

History, statistics, morbidity, and wry humor merge in the top 100 list of humanity’s most egregious atrocities.

For all of human history, we have been clubbing, stabbing, shooting, and otherwise causing severe bodily harm to one another until one party is in a non-functioning condition, typically known as death. 

A self-described “atrocitologist,” Matthew White, compiled a comprehensive reference book of such episodes, “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities.” 

As the title hints, the book has a very wryly humorous tone, but White never lets it get in the way of delivering information. He respects the situations he’s discussing.

White shows off his wit when describing the Time of Troubles in Russia (No. 22), when several imposters pretended to be Dmitri, the heir to the Russian throne, showing that you should “always insist on seeing a photo ID before you proclaim someone emperor.”

Indeed, some sections of the book are terribly somber, but that’s a given. Fortunately, White finds the humor in many situations and cuts out excessively academic language to provide an easily digestible explanation.

White ranks the worst incidents of mass death by tallying the total number of people who died, often relying on a wide swath of sources including official casualty estimates, military payroll records, census data, and historians. When kill estimates vary wildly, as in the case of Joseph Stalin’s reign (No. 6), White fully explains his methodology and places his kill estimate at the median. He also acknowledges that it’s difficult to nail down precise figures in ancient history, so some informed guesswork is required.

Like a true academic, White emphasizes that there is no single thread of causality that runs through all of the 100 deadliest events in human history, but he pointed to some general tendencies: chaos kills more people than tyranny and more civilians than soldiers tend to die in war. 

The book progresses chronologically, starting with the Second Persian War (No. 96) in the 400s BCE, marching all the way through history up to the Second Congo War (No. 27) in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

It’s impressive that White managed to include the diversity of events that he did. The Mideast Slave Trade (No. 8), Bahmani-Vijayanagara War (No. 70), famines in British India (No. 4), and the An Lushan Rebellion (No. 13) are just a few of several events that the Western public is completely unaware of, but that appear among the deadliest events in White’s list.

White occasionally addressing major themes relating to many of history’s deadliest events including “Religious killings, Genocide, World Conquerors, the Western Way of War, Crazed Tyrants, the Black Chapter of Communism, the Cold War, and Post-Colonial Africa.”

Through all of these touchy subjects, White typically sticks to the stats and the consensus view among historians, avoiding most controversy. That’s not to say he’s unbiased. Indeed, he truly holds contempt for the perpetrators of mass killings while trying to give attention to the victims’ suffering, often through anecdotes. 

“... we sometimes forget the human impact of historic events,” White wrote. “Yes, these things happened a long time ago, and all of those people would be dead now anyway, but there comes a point when we have to realize that a clash of cultures did more than blend cuisines, vocabularies, and architectural styles. It also caused a lot of personal suffering.”

Overall, “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things,” is a delightfully depressing, accessible, and helpful guide to understanding many of the god-awful things we’ve done to one another.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor for Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. It is nice that someone gave us this book form of the top 100 worst things.