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.
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A: A lot of it is just seeing how societies work. That's the broadest use of it – understanding how wars start. Once you start studying several different wars instead of focusing on one or two, you can start to see patterns.Skip to next paragraph
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The one that I jumped out at me is about dictators. You hear about oppressive dictators as being terrible, and they are, of course. But there are fewer of those compared to times when an entire culture just collapses and you have decades of civil war and the population is cut in half.
If you’re looking at risk assessment, you see that the collapse of civilization is sort of the worst-case scenario. That happens on a narrow level in history, something like Somalia or the Roman Empire.
The big pattern is that chaos is deadlier than tyranny. There are deadlier events when everything falls apart.
Q: Is your ranking useful in terms of preventing atrocities?
A: At the least, it sets out the case studies that other people can start looking at.
One of the problems is that when people start studying society is they tend to focus on the things that interest them. But if you look at the 100 worst, it gives you a broader sample of events.
Q: What made you spend so much time on events that we may not be as familiar with in the West, like the many conflicts in Chinese history?
A: I wanted to try to access everything in the world that fit the criteria. It did push me into studying and trying to explain Chinese history, something that most of my readers know nothing about, and make it interesting.
Q: What have you learned in the big picture about history?
A: Some historians almost forget the human element. They’ll talk about conquests and cultural mingling without saying people got killed.
There's even an attempt to rehabilitate the fall of Rome by saying it wasn't that bad. Sometimes they act like there aren't actual real living people involved in these events.
Q: What about bright spots amid all this misery?
A: One of the odd things I found was that I could not find many horrible events in India. It might be that their history is not well recorded, or it could also be there’s something about their civilization that’s more peaceful. I don’t know.
Q: Did you find heroes that we may not be familiar with?
I tried to bring out people who spoke against these things.
Bartolomé de las Casas was a Dominican monk who lived in the West Indies shortly after their discovery. He made a strong effort against what the conquistadors were doing against the Indians.
I also mention St. Francis of Assisi.
For some reason, people are trying to rehabilitate Genghis Khan, giving him a better reputation. They say you have to judge him by the times. But his career is at the same time as St. Francis of Assisi. That's to point out that it was possible, if you were living in the 1200s, to be a nicer person. You don't have to be Genghis Khan.
Q: Was it challenging to set the tone of the book?
A: It is sort of my nature to be a wise guy. I tried to direct insults, sarcasm, and irony at the bad people of the world.
Q: What did you learn on a personal level?
A: In some ways I found it enlightening and useful just to know things could be worse. However bad things seem to be now, they could be worse. I don’t get as worked up over things I see in the news.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.