Book Report: The Pessimist’s Guide to History by Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner (2000)

Book coverThis is the book of disasters and diseases that I brought along on my recent vacation and kind of kind of hamstrung my enjoyment of said vacation. This book is basically a year-by-year encyclopedia of bad things happening in history. You can basically break the things up into categories like Natural Disasters, War, Disease, and Accidents with some lesser incidents sprinkled in. It’s in chronological order, so it is a bit light on the earlier material but picks up steam and dedicates more pages to individual years as modernity occurs. Kind of like the pacing of a Civilization IV game, as a matter of fact. And many of the paragraph or multi-paragraph accounts have a zinger at the end that most of the time does not zing and just represents a bit of “We know better now” thinking which was bad enough in 2000–a revised edition would be unreadable.

As the book stems from 2000, we don’t get accounts of the presidential recounts of 2000 (the impeachment of Clinton is included along side with natural disasters that killed hundreds of thousands or diseases that killed millions). Also missing because of the impossibility of time travel: the attacks of 2001 (although the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 makes its appearance); a couple of earthquakes in Iran that killed tens of thousands; the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia; the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the presidency of Trump (which the authors might be inclined to include in a revised edition); and, of course, the COVID infections which the press and certain elements of society continue to press as a Big Deal, seriously you guys an Extinction Level Event.

So, yeah, not a fun read, really, and the numbers overwhelmed me too much to retain much for trivia nights should such a thing ever occur again.

One could read it as a bit of an Optimist’s Guide to the Present, though; biblical disasters killed many thousands of people at a go in the old days, with earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes leveling entire cities routinely. At least in the West and certainly in the United States, we have some deaths from such events, but one can mark the difference between the 1906 and the 1987 earthquakes in California; the latter caused less damage and substantially fewer deaths. And in the old days, fires routinely burned cities to ash or portions thereof, including London, Boston, and Chicago, sometimes many times, once every decade or so. Our fires are much more contained now.

Not what I needed to start a vacation, for sure. Perhaps I should have taken some movie tie-in paperbacks instead.

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