A Disastrous History of the World, By John Withington

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The publisher seems to be pushing its luck by describing this haul of the "nastiest things to have afflicted humanity" as "compulsively readable and entertaining". Weirdly enough, this is spot on. Withington's eye for detail enlivens what might otherwise be a morbid litany.

We learn, for example, that the final eruption of Krakatoa is "said to be the loudest noise ever heard by modern man". Four hours later, the bang was heard 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean. How ironic that the flu pandemic of 1918 was exacerbated by the parties that followed the signing of the armistice: 19,000 Britons died in the first week of peace. Often caused by humans, disasters are a central part of the human story.

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