“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
With his genial smile and sharp, inquisitive eyes, Matthew White could be the helpful neighborhood librarian just about anywhere. But at his day job in the federal courthouse library, White caters primarily to judges, making sure they have recent law available while managing a variety of databases.
The past few years, however, his down time was spent collecting data of an altogether sinister variety. White is the author of “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: the Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities” (W.S. Norton). The nearly 700-page tome ranks and describes mankind’s darkest moments by number of people killed, with concise summaries of each event.
“People were constantly arguing about who was worse, who killed more, worse regime, et cetera — I just wanted to settle it as much as anyone can,” White says. “To find the best numbers, I tried to get as many estimates as possible for every event, then I found the median. Seems that’s easier to defend.”
Entries range from the Second World War — 66 million people killed, at No. 1 — to the five-way tie for No. 96 (at his minimum cutoff of 300,000 killed), including the likes of Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin vying for the final spot.
White, a lifelong statistics junkie who isn’t a trained historian or college graduate, acknowledges that the numbers are notoriously debatable — and he’s heard all the arguments. Interested in urban populations and Richmond history, he initially drew maps “to get his bearings” and began a website in the mid-’90s (erols.com/mwhite28/20centry.htm) that became a clearinghouse for international online debates.
Before his book was published, White’s data had been cited by more than 377 books and 183 scholarly articles. Best-selling science author and Harvard professor Steven Pinker came across White’s online work when researching his own latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Natures: Why Violence Has Declined.”
“He’s non-ideological,” Pinker explains through email about White’s work. “He isn’t in this to prove that religion, or communism, or the United States, or government, is responsible for all the world’s evil.”
“He cites an impressive number of sources for every event,” Pinker continues — “something that a good librarian can do more effectively than most academics. He provides rationales for his various judgment calls, such as whether to trust an ancient historian or bureaucrat, and they strike me as reasonable.”
Pinker’s approbation made it easy for White to get published, he says. “[Pinker] said if I ever had anything I wanted to publish he’d like to help me out,” White recalls, adding that at the time Pinker made the offer, the book was nearly finished. Pinker ended up writing the foreword. Most of the critical reactions to the book have been positive, with guarded responses from certain academics.
In the text, White describes himself as an “atrocitologist.”
“I tend to invent words when I need them, when I have an idea I need to explain,” he says. “The usual words like genocide … I’ve seen too many arguments about whether something was, when everybody agrees that it happened. I like to stick with neutral terms.”
White describes the cause and effect of each atrocity in a CliffsNotes-style catalog, with interesting historical briefs and takeaways threaded by his wry humor and compassion for the suffering of ordinary people.
“I have a sense of irony — it helps to recognize some of the absurdity that caused some of these things, how many are mistakes,” White says. “I also like to cut apart perpetrator motivations. … A lot of historians try to justify what they were doing, so I like picking on them, too.”
But after burying himself in the worst parts of history, does White have any overall advice for the human race?
“Just don’t rush into things. Take some time to calm down before you start,” he says, with a shy, half laugh. “Most of these things were fought over principles that we now don’t care about.”
Matthew White will sign copies of “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things” on Feb. 11 at 1 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 5501 W. Broad Street.