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The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  857 ratings  ·  127 reviews
Evangelists of human progress meet their opposite in Matthew White's epic examination of history's one hundred most violent events, or, in White's piquant phrasing, "the numbers that people want to argue about." Reaching back to 480 BCE's second Persian War, White moves chronologically through history to this century's war in the Congo and devotes chapters to each event, w ...more
Hardcover, 688 pages
Published November 7th 2011 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 2011)
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Chrisimo Onoma What would actually be impossible is if there were more than one hundred in a list of the hundred most deadly achievements of humanity.

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Paul Bryant
This book isn't in the best possible taste. Like one of those countdown programmes on cheesy tv - 2016's 100 Most Shocking Celebrity Moments - it ranks massacres, wars and man-made catastrophes of limitless human suffering and discusses them all in a slightly unnerving jokey chatty unhistorianlike manner :

The Germans had come so close to winning the First World War they couldn't believe they didn't.

Communism lasted longer than fascism, jazz, John Wayne, Bonanza and the American Motor Corporatio
Oct 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
You know that scene in Maus Part II when Art Spiegelman, seated at his drawing board, is perched high up on a Holocaust bodypile? Okay. Matthew White is made of something *steely* because this man's work has him sitting on top of not just *a* tragic body pile, but *the* tragic body pile, the ENTIRE HUMAN BODYPILE. And I just spent the last couple of evenings mountaineering with him to the human bodypile's damnable peak. From up here, let me tell you what it was like: I was impressed because I am ...more
I expected to be utterly depressed throughout my reading of this fascinating trip down Atrocity Lane, but instead I found myself enthralled by the history being presented to me and the different way it was being presented. Though the sordid history of humanity is quite the cautionary tale in how we fail to treat each other in the ways in which we wish them to treat us, from slavery to warfare to acts of genocide to politically and racially induced famines, "The Great Big Book of Horrible Things" ...more
Dec 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The first thing you need to know about The Great Big Book of Horrible things is, you're going to not only learn things, but you'll at times be embarrassed about the things you know almost nothing about. The worst genocide since the Holocaust occurred in Bangladesh in 1971? The bloodiest war since WWII, the Second Congo War, ended less than ten years ago, and nobody in the United States noticed? 20 million Indians died in the 1800s due to famines that the British didn't want to respond to?

Makes y
Mary Overton
From the introduction:
"Aside from morbid fascination, is there any reason to know the one hundred highest body counts of history? Four reasons come to mind:
"First, things that happen to a lot of people are usually more important than things that happen to only a few people....
"Second, killing a person is the most you can do to him....
"Therefore, just by default, my one hundred multicides had a maximum impact on an enormous number of people. Without too much debate, I can easily label these to be
I know a lot of people can be heavily offended by the tone of this book. I wasn't. I couldn't be. Researching evil people and understanding war, torture, man-induced famine from a psychological point of wiew is what I do every day. This is not an offensive work - gasping and bowing your head in pain and shame everytime you hear the word "gang rape" or "Holocaust" is not a sign of caring more for the subject than someone who is very clinically exposing the truth behind (and of) them. For the ammo ...more
Jun 20, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Essentially what you have hear is a concise yet surprisingly richly detailed, informative and intriguing encyclopaedia of the last three thousand years as told through a chronological rundown of events ranked by body count.

When I first picked this book up I was under the misunderstanding that it would be a collection of the most depraved examples of man's inhumanity towards their fellow man (or woman). Rather than basing his countdown of the most inhumane acts based on perceived depravity, cruel
Jan 09, 2012 rated it liked it
Reading with hopes of an article on the value of statistics in understanding human atrocity--especially for those (like me) who tend to favour personal stories and even fictionalized accounts over this kind of data. We'll see what develops...

(Also: this is a whopper of a book, and while I don't often read eBooks, this one is helpful to have in this format; scrolling and searching is much easier).

Update: ended up writing a post on this topic here:
Shana Dennis
Jan 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, morbid
This book had a good chance of being dry and rambling, given the subject matter, but the author's tone and way of explaining each event kept me reading. White does not pin down a single cause for all of the horrible things in his great big book, which I liked. It is a bad historian that does that; a good historian recognizes that the world doesn't function in terms of black and white.
Jan 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This book was given to me by a coworker to read right after I finished the Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, but I needed a break from being exposed to the absolute horror that is mankind, so I read some more lightweight books before gritting my teeth and bearing down on this one.

This book is awful.

Humans are awful.

I will never understand how people can say that humanity is good. Anyone who says that humans are inherently good is willfully ignoring the evidence to the contrary. Humans are awfu
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, democide
After reading some other reviews, and considering the very sensational cover and title of this book, I was afraid it would be tasteless and of limited scientific value. I was pleasantly surprised that the humor was snarky, but not in juvenile, and that the research was scholarly in the good sense of the term. This is an excellent history book and a must-read for anyone seriously interested in democides. The scope of it is enormous, yet the descriptions feel complete. Even comparatively minor eve ...more
Dec 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is quite possibly the most important history book I've ever read.

White has a particular perspective: that the human cost of human actions should be quantified and studied thoroughly. This book uses a systematic approach to provide an overview of human events which does not ignore any of the ugliness in history. His use of a simple definition and exquisite sourcing give the reader quite a bit to digest - from the Punic wars to the Congolese civil war to the Three Kingdoms to the Atlantic sla
Feb 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
For people who appreciate military history and the great battles waged here on Planet Earth, this is probably going to entertain you, as it did me. The personalities, settings, and sheer number of those involved with these 100 atrocities make for some fantastic non-fiction reading. However, be warned that the author does not hold back in describing some intensely gruesome scenarios -- millions of wasted souls fly out of these pages. It got me down a bit, close to the end of the book, reading abo ...more
Apr 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who finds history fascinating
This is a surprisingly fascinating examination of the dark side of human history- the ways in which large numbers of humans die at the hands of other humans. We learn among other things that 3 million or more people died in the Roman gladiatorial games over some 700 years. Who knew? White may not be a Harvard professor, but he is clearly a bright man who has done a lot of research and thought deeply. It is well worth reading. This turns out to NOT be a freak show or a list of horrors- it is an h ...more
Mar 17, 2012 is currently reading it
So far so good...some best lines I read so far:

"While fighting over land is quite common, the land in dispute usually provides some practical resource - minerals, crops, harbors, farms, strategic location, exploitable labor, or sheer size. Palestine has none of these. The sole resource of the Holy Land is heritage. There's no gold, no oil, very little fertile land, and few natives, nothing but sacred sites, so in essence, the Crusades killed 3 million people in a fight to control the tourist tra
Jan 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This guy writes with so little emotion about world events, it's hilarious. For example, he describes the Crusades as a fight to control the tourist trade. Also, it's comical how easily humanity resorts cannibalism. Loved it.
Jan 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This was an amazing book. I learned so many things about history that I never learned in school. Basically anything having to do with African or Asian history was news to me. The writing was also quite witty for being about horrible atrocities.
I like lists, I like
History. This book combines
Them exhaustively.
Kevin Hogan
Oct 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
It is a review (ranked) of the atrocities of history. Megadeaths caused by humanity to other parts of humanity. As you can tell by the amount of time I took to read the book, it's better dipped into than read straight through. He goes into detail on his methodology as well, both in determining how to delineate horrible things, and how he attempts to come up with death numbers. All in all, interesting -- if not exactly the thing you want to read when you despair at humanity.
Ming Terk
Mar 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2020
Well researched and written. Wasn't very apparent in the title, I must admit. Enough details in the snippets to satisfy a history buff, but not too much to overwhelm a casual reader. You get a satisfying overview of world history, albeit only of atrocities. Occasionally, you get a trite comment, but I can let that pass in view of the overall satisfaction from the book. Highly recommended for those who can spare the time and effort for this rather long book.
Maggie Bermann
May 08, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was actually more interesting than i thought it would be, but what a cruel cruel world we livein! Took me a while to read but glad i did!
Yukio Nagato
Nov 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: all-stars
Absolutely love this book. It's hard to put down and never ceases to amuse me no matter what page or chapter I open up. The book is sprinkled with humor which reminds me of how some of my best history/social studies teachers taught their lessons and kept me engrossed in those subjects. Although this book discusses the awful incidents and people of the past, and not so far in the past, it's a great book that's not only informative but a lot of fun to read. One of my favorite books and would recom ...more
Lewis Smith
May 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
When I saw the title of this book on the shelf at our local Hastings store, I knew I had to have it. How could any historian pass up such a whimsically fascinating, yet awful, title as this?
White sets out to chronicle the 100 worst atrocities in human history, comparing and analyzing the different types of multicides (a new word here) throughout human history and discussing their similarities and differences. He also theorized that, 200 years from now, historians may rank the first half of the
Susan Morris
Apr 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
In this book, the author attempts to list every atrocity that occurred in the history of mankind. It's an ambitious project, especially considering that many of the atrocities occurred so long ago that it's nearly impossible to validate the ancient accounts. When possible, he does verify the facts with archeological evidence, but at other times, it seemed he researched and made an educated guess based on conflicting stories. He's been criticized for that but I think he is to be commended for tak ...more
Stephen Cranney
Like a lot of pop-history books, this one is a little lacking in details; but this is forgivable because of the sheer amount of material he covers. People often have these "who was the worst" person discussions, and body counts inevitably get brought up, so it was nice to have a source that compiles all the different arguments.

Also, we've all heard of the Holocaust, Stalin, etc., but there were a lot of these genocides and massacres that I had never heard about before (Bengali Genocide, etc.),
Aug 18, 2012 added it
The book I read was titled 'Atrocitology Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements'. White ranks man-made causes of death devoting between a page and ten pages to each and covers them chronologically. Most of the 100 are wars but not all. I appreciated his irreverance and lack of political correctness. He stands controversially with Marvin Harris in explaining Aztec human sacrifice as a need for protein. A valuable point is made about doubt historians have for the scale of murder caused by Chinggis ...more
Dale Muckerman
Feb 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I picked this book up thinking I would read a little here and there, but I ended up reading it straight through from beginning to end. It really puts a perspective on history and on the extremes of human nature. Before you think times are bad now, read this book and get a perspective on what's happened in the past. It's amazing how cruel people have been. It's amazing how complicit religion has been in wholesale death and war. But what's most amazing is how no matter what some of these villains ...more
Nov 07, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: put-aside
More of a "read through the chapters that interested me" than a "put-aside." This is more of a reference book to me and not something I could ever read all the way through (unless I was into genocide and war in a big way).

I quickly realized human suffering on a grand scale doesn't interest me. I'll stick to Cormac McCarthy for my fictionalized and personalized human suffering and violence, thank you.
Dec 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
Laid out chronologically the author covers the 'top 100' with classifications (religion, civil war, political, etc.) that highlights the terrible things that we have done to one another throughout history. We are very efficient at killing and we also have short memories He also brings a little levity where appropriate (yes, it can be appropriate)

I really enjoyed this book. And it makes a great reference!
Miriam Cihodariu
Sep 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Miriam by: Eduard Stan
Shelves: non-fiction, usa
Definitely interesting, and not something to be dismissed as morbid. It gives a good account of the history of war and criminal regimes, while also managing to put events you already know in their accurate proportion on a scale measured by the body-count. I think it's one of the best things that ever came out of a blog :)
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