The Pessimist's Guide to History

The Pessimist's Guide to History (third edition, 2008), by Doris Flexner and Stuart Berg Flexner, seeks to catalogue the worst disasters from history, and in the main it achieves this goal. The reader can learn about countless incidents that have occurred which really do add to the adage that "life isn't fair", as well as gather some ideas about places more susceptible to disasters than others. In Europe, Italy seems most affected by earthquakes and volcanoes, with Turkey also falling prey to the earthquake menace. Elsewhere around the world, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India are subject to major earthquakes, as is China (also the scene of calamatious flooding and ensuing famines), Bangladesh has been home to many of the worst cyclones, and Peru is another place to avoid if you don't like earthquakes.

Despite achieving its aims of cataloguing disasters, there are two things that stand out negatively for this book. The first is the silly comments that follow many of the descriptions of a disaster, which do little to add anything of interest to preceding text. For example, for an entry regarding the eruption of Taal in the Philippines in 1591, we are met with "Mother Nature burps again". A second example relates to the 1864 Calcutta Cyclone - "Another washout in India". These comments are unfortunate, as they are ultimately pointless and distract from, and sometimes cheapen, the tale they relate to.

The second negative mark against The Pessimist's... is the poor job at proof-reading that would seem to have occurred. Given that the book is in its third updated edition, this really is inexcusable. Several noticeable examples include "An A-4E Skyraider fighter plane preparing for lunch", "the fire probably burned from within their suits as well as without", "one of the worst disasters of modem times", "plans were made to demolish the bridge and replace it by a four-story structure" and "Almost all victims who remained inside where consumed in the flames of asphyxiated by the smoke".

If these marks against do not grate too much, this is a very interesting book to read, easy to pick up and browse through for ten minutes or equally to sit down and plough through for an hour. Hopefully, the fourth edition, when updated and published, will at least correct the grammatical and spelling errors. In summary: Worth a read, but don't expect a masterpiece.


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