Book Review: The Mental Floss History of the United States by Erik Sass

Hi there,

Do you ever think back on your history classes in high school and college and wonder what exactly it was they were teaching? Or do you ever wonder if some of those dry, boring facts we learned have changed over the years as more information is uncovered? I for one was bored stiff in most of my US history classes in junior high and high school. I would have much preferred to have learned more about European history or the ancient world than more about the effect of cotton on the US economy in the 1800s.

Well, if you were as bored as I was,  there may be a way to refresh your memory on US history and learn a few new things at the same time. Erik Sass from Mental Floss (along with Will Pearson and Mangesth Hattikudur) has created a history book that not only lays out all of those names, dates, and places we probably should remember, but offers some fascinating details about the things our teachers probably didn’t know.

This book starts a long time ago and works its way up to the present – some 23,000+ years of history from “Chapter 1: Prehistory, Puritans, Plantations, and Pirates” starting at roughly 23,000 BCE (Before Current Era) to “Chapter 10: America, the Decider” ending in 2010. And they do it all in a little more than 400 pages.

You may be thinking to yourself “History is boring, why would I want to read this book?” It’s a fair enough question, and if the book covered every single year in that 23,000 year span I would probably still be reading when the apocalypse hits and need the paper for toiletries, kindling, or dinner. Somehow I think the problems we currently have with our shrinking forests and jungles would probably be exacerbated by the thousands of pages worth of useless information the book would cover.

Thankfully, the bright folks from Mental Floss don’t do that.

Each chapter works about the same way. It starts with an introduction, moves to a “What Happened When” list of important dates and events, and then hits the high points of each era covered. They cover a lot of ground in a fairly short amount of pages. My favorite sections are the “Lies Your Teacher Told You” that goes over what you probably learned and then why some of that was untrue. Also included along the way are fascinating little tidbits of facts or figures.

I have to admit that for not being a fan of US history, I learned and relearned quite a bit. For example, though Benedict Arnold is labeled as one of the biggest traitors in American history, I never knew more than the fact that he switched sides from the American side to the British during the Revolutionary War. Turns out there were reasons for why he flipped. Though he fought well in several key battles and was wounded in the line of duty, he didn’t actually win the battles he led and never really got credit for his accomplishments. While he recovered, he grew more and more bitter and eventually wanted what was coming to him. Though he is still a traitor, at least now I understand more about what his motivations were behind his acts.

All the major highlights are covered, albeit in a more lively way than all the history books I ever read in school. If I’d had sections like “Quick’n’easy World War II” in my AP American History class, I might remember a bit more. In less than three pages, including a map and a chart, it sums up the high points from the American reluctance to join in the war up to Pearl Harbor, trade policies with the U.K. and the Soviets that caused many merchant ships to be sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic, along with many of the big battles and dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tight, factual, and informative.

As the book works its way forward in time, I had to wonder about the misinformation I learned in school. Was it deliberate? I don’t think so. Most teachers are given a curriculum and don’t have much leeway to add much to the schedule. The end result can amount to a lot of bored students. Perhaps if they used more entertaining textbooks like The Mental Floss History of the United States or America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction by Jon Stewart, classrooms would encourage free thought and inspire [gasp] a love of learning?

If you’ve been considering some non-fiction to supplement your fiction habit (or maybe that’s just me), I highly recommend The Mental Floss History of the United States from Erik Sass and the folks at Mental Floss. The quotes, dates, interesting facts, and straightforward writing coupled with a sense of humor makes this a history resource I will keep and refer back to for years to come. It manages to educate and entertain simultaneously, which is a win-win for everybody!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here (in its earlier form – this version has a few edits).

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great books below!

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