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Encyclopedia of evil: a catalog of history's 100 worst atrocities

Librarian Matthew White discusses 'The Great Big Book of Horrible Things' and his desire to set the record straight. 

By Randy Dotinga / February 24, 2012

On top of librarian Matthew White's list of history's most horrible occurrences: World War II and the reigns of Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong.

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Our collective knowledge of the past doesn't go back very far when it comes to quantifying the worst things humans have done to each other.

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We know the wars of the last century caused tens of millions of deaths. But what about the Crusades, the African slave trade, and the many conflicts in China's history? How do they compare? Were they even worse?

Maybe they deserve more attention as we try to understand humanity's most horrific moments and prevent future ones.

Matthew White thinks so. The Richmond, Va., librarian believes it's time for a fuller accounting of man's inhumanity to man. In the newly published The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, he ranks the deadliest human-caused catastrophes of all time, topped by World War II, the regimes of Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong, famines in British India, and the fall of the Ming Dynasty.

The 669-page book's unusual approach to an exceedingly grim topic has attracted attention, including a New York Times story that noted it's gained credibility thanks to scholarly fans.

Despite being a kind of encyclopedia of evil, it actually manages to be a fascinating read thanks to White's keen grasp of history and his wry take on the villains of the past.

It helps that White is careful to respect the victims who died at the hands of others and correct the record when necessary about the identities of those who were responsible for so much misery.

In an interview this week, White talked about his desire to set the record straight, the one part of the world that seems largely immune to the worst of the worst, and the way chaos and tyranny compare.

Q: What's a nice guy like you doing writing about the worst things humans ever did to each other?

A: I've always been statistically minded, and for a while I was doing a lot of local history. Then when the Internet came along, I set up a website on world history. This turned to be one of those things people argued about – who's responsible for the worst things that ever happened? – and I kept getting into arguments.

Q: Why do people argue about this?

A: A lot of it is that they want to file things on their enemies and accuse them of doing all these terrible things. And there is this sense that if we know about mistakes in the past we can start working around them in the present, deciding whether we intervene in certain wars.

And then there's orneriness.

Q: You're pretty specific about how many died in atrocities, even if they happened thousands of years ago. Can you really quantify the effects of long-ago events like conflicts and the collapses of civilizations?

A: Within limits you can. There are records that go back, and a lot of them are based on things like money – tax records, for instance. There are suddenly fewer people after a war.

Archaeology is another way. If one layer of the past has a thriving civilization, and a war comes through and the next layer is pretty empty, you can get into the area of numbers, whether it's tens of millions or hundreds of thousands.

We tend to discount some of the chronicles that have been told, but I didn't base this on the historians of these eras. It's usually based on some sort of modern academic scholarship.

Q: What value does your ranking have?

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