cover image Truth about History

Truth about History

Robert Dolezal, Reader's Digest. Reader's Digest Association, $29.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-7621-0523-6

Did you know that Cleopatra's legendary looks were actually nothing to write home about? Or that the blood-sucking, malaria-bearing mosquito may have abetted the downfall of the once ironclad Roman Empire? The Reader's Digest editors cover these topics and much more in this richly illustrated reference. Organized by themes like""crowns and conspiracies"" and""fame and reputation,"" this book navigates the well-traveled, if poorly lit, avenues of our past, focusing on new discoveries that have been illuminated through technology. The editors revisit old questions and raise new ones about some of the world's most storied events, ranging from the evolution of our species to how the Titanic sunk. DNA tests have determined the gastronomical habits (and by extension, the month of death) of Otzi the Ice Man, who lived about 5000 years ago, while advances in laser imaging have led to the recent rediscovery of the Greek mathematician Archimedes's lost text, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, which was thought to be ruined after a 13th-century monk scratched out the text to make a prayer book. Vivid graphics add zest to the dry facts, but true history buffs may deem much of this old hat. Still, those with a simple and honest thirst for knowledge will not be disappointed. There's plenty of cocktail party fodder here (Hiram Maxim, not Thomas Edison, invented the light bulb; Napoleon didn't die from stomach cancer but from slow, murderous doses of arsenic), and after reading this book, some may even feel confident enough to give Ken Jennings a run for his Jeopardy money. But as the editors point out, none of this information is set in stone; if there's one lesson that readers will take away from this book, it is that history is both subjective and mutable.