Our Dumb Century, The Onion

Three Rivers Press, 1999, 164 pages, C$24.00 tpb, ISBN 0-609-80461-8

It always amazes me whenever someone opines that history is boring.  To hear them talk, history’s just a dull recitation of dates, names and events. Don’t they realize that history can explain everything that happens today? Don’t they know that the best stories ever published don’t even equal some of the amazing stuff that has truly happened in the past? Don’t they even remember Santayana’s admonition?

Maybe all that’s missing is a gifted vulgarizer, someone to make the study of history amusing, accessible and worthwhile. I don’t think that this is what the staff of The Onion had in mind when they set out to put together Our Dumb Century, but the result certainly makes history a lot of fun again.

You might or might not already be familiar with the web humor magazine The Onion ( http://www.theonion.com/ ), but it doesn’t really matter; all you need to know is that Our Dumb Century‘s shtick is to “reprint” a hundred year’s worth of front pages from the Onion as a retrospective of the century. None of it is available on the web site.

Of course it’s all made up. Headlines like 1917’s “Pretentious, Goateed Coffeehouse Types Seize Power in Russia” or 1953’s “A-Bomb May Have Awakened Gigantic Radioactive Monsters, Experts Say” should be a giveaway. But the most amazing thing about Our Dumb Century (past the funny stuff, of course) is how real it looks. The front pages from the beginning of the century look exactly like the old newspapers did, with shaky typography, badly-reproduced graphics and overstuffed layout. The graphical team responsible for the design of the book truly did their homework, and visually, there isn’t a single detail that looks out of place. It’s one of the small pleasures of the book to flip from page to page and see the evolution of “The Onion” through the century.

All of which is considerably reinforced by the pitch-perfect style of the writing. The Onion’s writers have convincingly re-created the characteristic tone of reporting through the century, through the biased, wordy style of the 1900s to the carefully antiseptic prose of the 1990s. It may or may not be exact, but it adds a lot to the impact of the jokes.

And what jokes they are: From 1900’s “Death-by-Corset Stabilizes at One in Six” to 2000’s “Christian Right Ascends To Heaven”, Our Dumb Century offers a century’s (and 164 pages’) worth of satire. Every page is shock-full of stuff in 8-point type, with enough nastily funny headlines to make you groan in pure sadistic delight. (How about 1963’s “Kennedy Slain By CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemason: President Shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles” or 1937’s “German Jews Concerned about Hitler’s ‘Kill All Jews’ Proposal”?)

Naturally, this isn’t for everyone. The level of sadistic irony can be shocking (1976: “Cambodia to Switch to Skull-Based Economy”), as can be the intentional profanity (July 21, 1969. ’nuff said.)

Historical figures are in for a thorough irreverent thrashing, of course. There’s an alternate-universe arrest/getaway/manhunt/shootout involving Nixon (1974), a few good slams at FDR (1933: “President confronts depression with ‘Big Deal’ Plan: ‘Big Deal, I’m Rich’ Roosevelt Says”) and welcome nastiness about various great villains of our century (1977: “Idi Amin Praises Former Ugandan Defense Minister as ‘Delicious’”)

A sense of history is, of course, as useful as a sense of humor, but while Our Dumb Century can motivate anyone to learn a bit more, it’s unclear whether a sense of humor can be developed. For those with some knowledge of the past hundred years, though, the payoff is enormous. The staff of The Onion laughs at an astonishing variety of subjects, from arts to politics, military affairs to fashion fads and you never know when your favorite areas of interest might pop up.

The only flaw of the book that I could find was a loss of historical perspective over the last 30 pages of the book in favor of lighter pop-culture references. Maybe inevitable given the lack of perspective… or accurate given the real nineties.

Not only is Our Dumb Century an instant classic and one of the funniest books of the twentieth century, but it’s also one of the best gift ideas I’ve ever seen for smart people. Buy a crate, encourage The Onion, distribute at will and get compliments on your impeccable taste. Easy!

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