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Book Review of: What on Earth Happened?

The Complete Story of
the Planet, Life, and People from the Big Bang to the Present Day

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Review of What on Earth Happened, by Christoper Lloyd (Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This book is beautifully printed and bound, on heavy paper. It runs just under 400 pages, and the pages are large format, so it takes a while to read. As you make your way through the book, you'll notice that the page edges are different colors.

Each chapter covers a specific period of history, and the color changes from chapter to chapter. On the left page edges, you'll see the chapter title (e.g., Ice Box) and the period (e.g., 40 million - 2 million years ago). On the right page, you'll see the clock analogy for where this period is. We start with the Big Bang at 00:00:00, and move forward toward today with today completing the 24 hours of a clock.

The book contains photos, charts, and drawings in both color and black and white. These range in quality from professional journal level to some that should have been redone or left out.

The writing style varies considerably in its apparent target. In many places, the wording sounds like children's book writing and in others it sounds adult. Throughout the book, the writing simply appears to be unedited. The writing was full of style errors, word misuse, and grammatical errors. Plus, it was generally clumsy. I say this while giving considerable leeway to the author in light of his being from the U.K. and selling the book in the USA. This isn't a matter of Oxford English colloquialisms and spellings. It's a matter of sloppy writing.

He's sloppy not just in form but also in substance. He has a bad habit of using non sequiturs to support statements. Just so I am clear here, let me say that "sequitur" is from the same root as "sequence" and so a sequitur necessarily follows but a non sequitur does not.

An example of a non sequitur is, "There is water in the ocean, so you owe me $5,000." While it's true there's water in the ocean, it does not necessarily follow from that fact that you owe me anything. In most cases, the author's statements arising from the non sequiturs happen to be true. But the persistent use of non sequiturs makes it appear as though he's trying to deceive the reader.

Both the sloppy writing style and the lack of fact-checking indicate the author rushed to write this book. But the underlying cause is something less benign, as we will see later in this review.

The author also has an annoying habit of referring to people's names in the format, "An inventor called Galileo" instead of just saying "Galileo, an inventor" or "The inventor Galileo." This brings up another point. In his "complete story," I don't recall a single mention of Galileo and could not locate such by either the index or thumbing through the relevant section of the book.

The book isn't about the history of the universe or the progress of man. It's essentially a rant against the modern world. While the author makes some valid points and presents a great deal of interesting information, he also includes a fair number of statements that are simply not true. On top of that, he conjectures and recommends without having any authoritative basis for doing so.

Where the author presents falsehoods, his tendency is to either just throw them out there for the reader to accept, or to precede them with another statement from which the second does not follow. So, these are pretty easy to spot.

Even though the author is strongly biased toward the left and statist quadrant of the political spectrum, he does occasionally break from the herd. For example, he correctly noted that the Second Amendment in the USA's Bill of Rights, like the other nine, is an individual right. He even bolstered that by referring to an earlier work from which the Bill was derived.

Side note for folks not familiar with this document: At the time this Bill was written, its drafters feared that the new nation might some day use its militia to enforce abuse of the people. So, the Second Amendment recognized that because a militia was (at the time) necessary, so was necessary the right of individual citizens to be armed to counteract the militia. This way, citizens need not fear the government because it would not enjoy a power advantage over them. Today, however, we have a standing army so the militia part is outdated and people really do fear the government (especially after Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Hoyt Fiasco, and some other incidents).

I think this book may be good for kids to get a general idea of history, if they supplement their reading with other sources. That would entail taking this book a chapter at a time and using it as a partial framework for a course of study that would take place over time. It's also important, during that study, to note that some "should be there" chapters aren't there. The writer didn't correctly pick which events mattered, and he completely omitted mention of many key historical figures.

To rely on this book alone for an understanding of world history is intellectually dangerous, given the deficiencies noted.

The basic structure is sound, and to my editorial eye this book is a workable first draft. As a completed text, it widely misses the mark. That's really too bad, because the book has potential and is loaded with gems. It's one of those "coulda been" books. The bulk of Chapters 41 and 42 should be deleted, along with the Epilogue. If the author wants to blog, he should do that online rather than in a hardback book that people pay this kind of money for under the author's pretense of selling them a concise world history.

In addition to including material that any good editor would excise and no honest publisher would permit, this book omits material that rightfully belongs in it. A book that makes the claims this one makes should also have a chapter about great inventors, and another on great innovations in some representative area of human endeavor (e.g., medicine).

Most of my book reviews contain a chapter by chapter synopsis. This one does not. That's partly because I don't feel like writing about 42 individual chapters and partly because I'm not trying to convince anyone to buy the book.

I have also written detailed reviews that list what fact-challenged authors got wrong. I'm not doing that here, for these reasons:

  1. The sheer volume of the book.
  2. Lloyd got most of it right, so it's not an erroneous book per se. Just one with many errors.
  3. Lloyd made more errors than I have the patience to tabulate.
  4. The book needs a major overhaul, so the exact details don't really matter at this point.

One could cut the author some slack and say that perhaps the errors occurred because the book's concept was too ambitious for one person to meet. But that isn't why they occurred. The author clearly had an agenda and put that well above concerns over accuracy. The author's goal wasn't to inform but to proselytize.

The last two chapters, which left me aghast, revealed exactly what this agenda was. He proposes one bad idea after another. He even advocates carbon credits, which is a vast wealth transfer scheme that would essentially disembowel modern society while ushering in a whole new parasite class. Anyone who proposes such a disastrous concept is not a serious student of business, economics, or politics. Not to mention history, which is what this book purports to present.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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