Some Biographies for the New Year

So are you exercising and getting in shape? Last fall I bought a second hand stationery bike (or is it stationary? I can’t remember the difference between the two and it makes the difference between a bike that doesn’t move and a bike you write on) to strengthen my knee and I kind of got hooked on it.  I love being able to read while I’m riding (but not writing–that would definitely be a stationary bike) and I’ve found that I’m 86% more likely to exercise if I’ve got a good book to read.

My sister gave me an audio copy of A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans: Pirates, Skinflints, Patriots and Other Colorful Characters Stuck in the Footnotes of History by Michael Farquhar (an editor at the Washington Post, not the villain in Shrek, as at first I thought) and it got me through many miles. It’s not exactly history from the David McCoullough-style professorial heaviness but darn it, I liked it.

Each of the short chapters is dedicated to a different character–the kind so interesting and freakishly bizarre as to make Sarah Palin, Howard Stern, Paris Hilton, Dennis Rodman and the Unibomber look calm and well-adjusted–with the only rule being that they must be relatively unknown and unlauded and all the while proving, once again, that the 20th century does not have a monopoly on crazy.

Politicians, thieves, pirates, would-be royalty, they’re all there and ready for your amusement and guaranteed to keep you riding an extra mile on your bike as if you were lingering in front of the tabloids at the supermarket check-out line.  And better than the tabloids, with this book you actually get a dose of real history in there along with the entertainment.  It wouldn’t be a bad way to introduce kids (I’m thinking preteens and older) to some of the more interesting parts of our national history and get them to learn a little something along the way.

The other audio book I listened to was 10 Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly (which you can get for free various places online).

One of the first female reporters, Nellie Bly–along with her editor–contrived to get herself commited to an asylum for the insane in turn-of-the-century New York City. Forget that she was a woman and unused to such things or that asylums weren’t quite what they are today or that if it was such a good idea why didn’t her editor take the assignment himself–as you listen to her story in her own words you can’t help but be impressed with her bravery and spirit.  (Though I think she had to be a bit crazy to get herself thrown in there with only her editor’s word that he’d be able to get her released after ten days were up.)

Bly did it to report on the condition of the mentally ill and does so with vivid and honest reports which were eventually helpful in bringing needed reforms and improved living conditions for those who couldn’t help themselves.

Bly’s experiences on Blackwell’s Island among the female inmates was serialized in The World but as it aroused so much interest, controversy and disgust she received many requests to produce her story in one contained volume.  The result is a short read (about six or seven hours of listening) that follows her from the idea’s inception, through her commitment and time in the justice system, through her time in custody and finally to her release.

The narrative is old-fashioned and stilted but that doesn’t diminish the story or Bly’s bravery. Not only is it a sad record of the plight of the insane but a startling reminder of how far women’s rights have come in the intervening years.  A good lesson in sociology and history as well as a good read for the sake of a story.

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