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The Optimist's Guide to History Book Review

Updated on January 24, 2009

Book Review: History Can Be Fun and Funny

The Optimist’s Guide to History Book Review


by Doris Flexner


True to its title, The Optimist’s Guide to History is a historical listing of some of the more friendly events within human history.  This is in perfect balance to Flexner’s previous book “The Pessimist’s Guide to History” (along with Stuart Berg Flexner), and gives not only information now valuable and important, and now sundry (yet fun), but does this with charm and wit.


In fact, Flexner is prone to insinuating humor, albeit sometimes prosaically, into the numerous historical entries, and even at the end, in her humble biography, which she finishes off with the sentence “She has always been an optimist.”


There are some points of great strength within this cherubic collection, particularly that women are accorded much more credit within history than is often cited in other books of history.  For instance, in one of the 2 entries for 1860, she celebrates the Property Acts Law that passed into legislation in New York State and which was later emulated by other states (and nations).  As she concludes this passage: “The wheels of progress sometimes turn very slowly, but they do turn” (emphasis mine).


At times she seems a bit self-righteous for the sake of women’s place in history, yet rightfully so.  Take for example the entry of 1983 about Barbara McClintock.  McClintock is the scientist who, in 1931, at the humble age of 29, “proved that the genes for physical characteristics are carried on chromosomes and that the exchange of these chromosome sections creates a biological variety,” only to have her work ignored by her colleagues due to sexism.  In 1983 Barbara McClintock was 81, and at last received the Nobel Prize for her work.  Flexner concludes this noble woman’s entry into history by noting “Gender discrimination seems to have gotten in the way of scientific progress…those men should have paid attention to a woman who was twenty years ahead of her time.”


Also of note is that she highlights not only historical events and happenings, but also the antecedents that led to such historical note, and even later results.  As an example, rather than merely giving credit to Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of the erstwhile planet (now deemed “planetoid”) Pluto, she furthers the accolades.  It was the American astronomer Percival Lowell who first posited the existence of an unknown planet, “seen” in the mathematical anomalies in the movements of Uranus and Neptune.  (A further note, Lowell was scoffed at by the scientific community for his ideas of possible life on Mars, due to “canals” seen on the red planet, yet was vindicated as a scientist for his theory on “Planet X” by Tombaugh, 14 years after his death.)


Of course, as with all books on history, there are always subjective aspects that work their way into the narrative, as with Flexner’s conclusion at the end of her 1850 entry for the work of Levi Strauss, the inventor of Blue Jeans.  After detailing the great, upward change of fortune for the gold miner turned clothing manufacturer, Flexner equates capitalism with democracy in stating: “It’s one way of spreading democracy,” a point many political scientists would dispute.


Finally, and to reiterate the fact, Flexner always tries to stay upbeat and positive throughout the history that she details, leaving the reader satisfied in knowing that maybe all is not glum after all.


Flexner, Doris.  The Optimist’s Guide to History.  New York: Avon Books, 1995.





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