Book Title: The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy
Author: Rick Beyer
Style: Illustrated Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Bathroom Reading
Page Count: 224
Format: Hardcover (library)
Reading time: 2 hours
Date Finished: 1/24/17
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My impressions: Sometimes, you want a meal, and sometimes, you want a snack. I’d label The Greatest Stories Never Told as being in the latter category, but it’s not a very healthy snack; it’s a box of cheap cookies that are enjoyable enough when you’re hungry, but which don’t really satisfy you in the long run. It’s also a book I classify as “bathroom reading” material because it has a list of 100 anecdotes from history, each around 1-3 paragraphs long with a few factoids in the margins containing related notes – perfect for reading when you just need something to occupy your mind while you concentrate on other business. It’s nothing special (it’s written by documentary filmmaker Rick Beyer, a contributor to the History Channel back when it actually aired history programs and not reality shows), but it does have some limited value in providing some fun facts about history.
But the question I always ask when reading these books is, “will I learn something I didn’t know, or read a bunch of the same old stories I did know?” And the answer for this book is, both. There were some stories I hadn’t heard about before, like the origin of the word “boycott” or the way the British used a corpse in World War II to make the Germans think an assault was heading for Greece when it was, in fact, heading for Sicily. I was also interested to see how far the history of fax machines stretched; I had no idea they existed in some form in the 19th century.
But there were plenty of old chestnuts too, and some of them reported things that aren’t actually history, but rather, myths – for example, the idea that George Washington wasn’t really the first president of the United States because of the presidents elected before him during the Articles of Confederation (wrong – Washington was the first) or the history of the Children’s Crusade (which probably never happened, at least the way it’s popularly known). And when I see things like that included as fact, I do begin to question the validity of the book. Since only one source is included for each fact (and some of the sources appear rather dubious, citing author interviews or the like), I’d say it’s about as trustworthy as a slickly-produced cable TV documentary about history, which is to say, not very much.
An offbeat history book I would recommend in this vein (and which I found a little more substantial) is Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet, a book I found surprisingly detailed as it delved into the weird history of things that sound like urban legends, but have a germ of truth. Another one I like (and which seems to be well-researched) is Peter James and Nick Thorpe’s Ancient Inventions, which offers an amazing survey of inventions throughout history which puts to rest the myth that people of pre-industrial cultures didn’t have amazing technology at their disposal when they needed it. It also offers a considerable focus on the Asian side of the Old World and its considerable culture of innovations, a contribution which is all too often ignored in books about history.
Tip of the hat to my lovely wife for recommending this book. She read it for her own 365-day challenge, and handed it to me when she was done.