BOOK REVIEW: The Real History of the End of the World: Apocalyptic Predictions from Revelation and Nostradamus to Y2K and 2012

The Real History of the End of the World is a light-hearted look at a heavy subject. Historian and author Sharan Newman chooses examples from different cultures, religions, and time-periods to show that messiahs, millenarians and other doom-criers are a universal fixture of human societies. The approach is journalistic rather than academic, emphasizing breadth rather than depth.

Each of the 43 very short chapters discusses one particular example of apocalyptic madness. A skeptical eye is turned on ancient Mesopotamian predictions, the Maya calendar, Nostradamus, fundamentalisms within Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, Chinese revolutions, the “Bible code,” and more. The most developed section of the book discusses doomsday movements in North America during the nineteenth century, a particularly productive arena for such phenomena. Given that the author is a historian, it is not surprising that twentieth and twenty-first century movements get only passing mention.

Readers seeking a serious, academic analysis of the subject would do well to look elsewhere. Those wanting a light and readable overview should be pleased. Skeptics and unbelievers may even find this book entertaining.

Jim Dugan