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

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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 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!

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About Fitz

Fitz is a software engineer and writer who lives in Colorado Springs, CO, with his family and pets, trying to survive the chaos!
  • STM

    Geez, I grew up in Australia … and even I know Benedict Arnold was a hero who switched sides from the traitors in blue to the good guys in red during the American insurrection.

    Although, Fitz, you might almost have been right if you hadn’t been so wrong (I will prefer to think it was a minor lapse in thought accessorised by a rather large typo) … the American revolution was indeed a civil war, but one fought on the American side of the Atlantic. The reason: King George, who thought it a good idea to tax Americans without representation, had also made a mockery of his own country’s parliamentary democracy by meddling, peddling his influence, and setting up a coterie of MPs in Westminster to do his bidding. Although most Americans think the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown brought about the end of the war, it actually continued for some time and only a democratic change of government in Westminster brought it to an end as the Whigs who came to power had always supported American independence. When silly old George asked for more money to keep fighting, they told him to piss off and make a proper peace with America.

    Perhaps the Whigs hoped for instant rapport; although you can’t blame Americans for not responding immediately given the unpleasantness.

    Had they (the Whigs) been in power earlier, there would have been no war, and no total split with Britain. That is not my view but also the view of history as, initially, that is all Washington and some of the other founding fathers had wanted.

    So the US might have been the first independent and democratic Dominion, and would now most likely be a single nation with Canada – possibly with a flag that had the thirteen stripes but with a Union Jack in the corner (the first American flag, a bit like like Hawaii’s state flag).

    And the subsequent War of 1812 between the US and Britain is the only modern war fought between two genuine constiutional democracies (even if the idea of genuine at the time wasn’t quite what we know today).

    Because of that, and the long peace that existed afterwards, it was inevitable the US would – eventually – be allied with Britain and come to the aid of a beleagured mother country during WWII … even when they didn’t have to.

    As others have pointed out on here, it’s been the best and most loyal of all the old colonies in that regard.

    Good on ’em too. I wonder how much of an impact the US would have made had they not been an independent nation that had grown up to become richer and more powerful by the 1940s than the country that gave birth ton it.

    Possibly, that doesn’t even bear thinking about.

  • Dear “Editor” (#9): Half a fix isn’t much better than no fix at all.

    The erroneous sentence now reads: “I never knew more than the fact that he switched sides from the rebel side to the confederate side during the Revolutionary War.”

    Am I the only one around here who knows that there was no “confederate side” during the Revolutionary War?

  • Editor

    Editor’s note: “Civil War” corrected to “Revolutionary War” in the text.

  • In the introduction to his book Slow Learner (1984), Thomas Pynchon regrets his past mistakes and concludes: “The lesson here, obvious but now and then overlooked, is just to corroborate one’s data, in particular those acquired casually, such as through hearsay or off the backs of record albums. We have, after all, recently moved into an era when, at least in principle, everybody can share an inconceivably enormous amount of information, just by stroking a few keys on a terminal. There are no longer any excuses for small stupid mistakes.”

    That was in 1984. Twenty-six years later, well into the Google era, an Internet writer’s small stupid mistakes–especially those left uncorrected after attention has been drawn to them–are unforgivable.

  • @Alan, I appreciate the concern with the article. I have submitted a request to have the article corrected. But I don’t appreciate the harsh language for no appreciable reason. I’m human, and as such fallible. I hope to have the article corrected today sometime and would appreciate some patience. Thank you.

  • I think Fitz likes it that way. It’s clear from his review that he doesn’t give a shit about American history. So it probably amuses him to see that those of us who do care are annoyed by his ignorance.

  • Kim

    I am confused. If you saw Alan’s comment yesterday, the 28th, why is the article not corrected today, on the 29th?

  • Editor! You mean an editor worked on this as well? Hard to believe.

  • doug m.

    How does basic US history slip by a writer and editor? I hope the children aren’t homeschooled

  • @Alan – I’m going to take your good natured ribbing in stride. Thanks for the corrections and for reading the review. 🙂

  • Fitz, you’re right. Mental Floss “offers some fascinating details about the things our teachers probably didn’t know.” I’m sure our teachers didn’t know, for example, that Benedict Arnold “switched sides from the rebel side to the confederate side during the Civil War,” as you write.

    Indeed, Benedict Arnold himself didn’t know that, having died in 1801, sixty years before the Civil War began.

    For another thing, most of our teachers thought, mistakenly from your account, that the rebel side was the confederate side during the Civil War.

    “I had to wonder,” you write, “about the misinformation I learned in school.”

    Thankfully, you prove to us all, Fitz, that in your case, learning misinformation is a lifelong process. Keep up the good work.