Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How History Plays a Role in the Value of a Book

That sounds like an impressive title, doesn't it? One that likely will be followed by something intelligent and researched. Alas, this blog is still written by me, and will likely end up mostly just musing aloud about something I recently read.

So I've been playing around with my new Nook. Turns out, if you want to actually read something on an e-reader, you have to download books on it. Don't you think something that masquerades as a book would actually COME with books to read? Like, $200 worth of them?  Yeah, me too.

But it doesn't. So I had to go cruising the internet for things to download, and I thought the best way to start would be FREE books. After all, I didn't want to pour another $75 into it by buying books and then discover I actually HATE reading on a gadget. And then, isn't one of the great things about e-readers that you have at your fingertips free copies of everything written that's now in public domain? And what better a way to get back into reading the classics?

So my first few minutes after plugging it in and turning it on (and maybe there was some kissing of the smooth white plastic shell, but I'll never admit that), I was browsing free books.

One of the first I came across was Nellie Bly's 10 Days in a Madhouse. I stopped because just that morning my daughter and I had been talking about a movie we'd seen at the Newseum in Washington D.C., and in particular the fact that Nellie Bly and her reporting stint in the New York insane asylum had led to this very book.

Without hesitation (after all, it was FREE), I downloaded it and instantly had it sitting in my lap. My very first e-book.

If you don't know the premise of this book, it's more of a rather long expose than a book, written by a female reporter who took on an assignment in 1887 to masquerade as an insane women in order to get committed to  Blackwell Island's Women's Lunatic Asylum. The book's graphic depiction of the horrid conditions caused a sudden spotlight on state-funded asylums, brought her personal fame, and propelled the state to increase the budget and care of the indigent and insane.

Both Nellie Bly and this book have achieved a lasting recognition and applause, and so as I sat to read, I expected great writing.

What I got was what felt like skeletal writing only interrupted by dramatic flourishes, as if the author couldn't decide whether to make a big deal out of her ordeal, or to downplay it. She spoke calmly and methodically about the way the guards held people under freezing water until they thought they'd drown, but speaks indignantly about how the women are forced to eat on a wooden table without even the common niceties of a tablecloth.

She feigns her way into being committed as an insane woman by staring off into space in a boarding house, and insisting someone would be coming soon with her bags. It took less than 24 hours for her to draw a home of women into belief that she was insane and potentially dangerous by refusing to go to sleep when everyone else did but sitting upright on her bed instead. In quick order she was turned over to a doctor who declared her insane and sent her to the asylum.

I couldn't read this without my own current world interrupting hers, wondering how one could be so equally appalled at the extent to which the piano in the asylum was out of tune as with the chains they had to wear on walks. I was bothered by how simple it was to be considered insane, when there are truly, truly insane people on the streets today that couldn't get a judge to declare that.

In short, I think if this book were presented today, even as a feature story in a news magazine, it would never have been published. Not that the story didn't have merit on it's own, but that the writing itself nearly undermined the power of the story. As horrid as the conditions were, I felt nearly nothing as I read it, more as if I were reading a badly written horror story than a true, real-to-life report.

I wondered why this book has lasted. Is it because Nellie Bly was one of the first women reporters to do anything so brave and undercover? Was it because this book blasted open the secrets of a dark, dark place and made a difference from that day on in the lives of every woman that would find herself at Blackwell's Island?

If this book were fiction, it would have long since gone out of print and faded from everyone's thoughts. If it were submitted today, I can't imagine it would ever be published as it is. It keeps its power and its prestige based on the history out of which it came. It's valuable, not as a great piece of writing, but as a historic document, one which was innovative and change-inducing in its day.

Certainly there are other books published more recently that fall into this category as well. Memoirs and books about famous trials and "I was there when" type of books. But in light of books like Dave Cullen's Columbine, it's a shame more of these couldn't have been written in the kind of book like that: one that will stand the test of time not just because of it's subject but because of how well it's written.


  1. The book sounds... old. Like when you pick up really old editions of Good Housekeeping and the pages talk about how women should be happy as homemakers and not try to get jobs.

    Maybe it was good writing for the time? Writing can be dated, just like acting-- where all the minorities are shop keepers and servants and everone is inflected; speaking with a slight British accent.

  2. I never read this, but I remember my daughter reading this in school and writing a report on it. So my thinking is that you're on to something when you say it's the historical value rather than the literary value. Which I guess does have a place in the evolving of our society, and so is used in the school systems. Fascinating story, though, maybe even more so with the indiscrepancies you mention.

  3. Christy - it was definitely a flashback to a different day! The clash between what really mattered and what I don't think should (like table linens and out of tune pianos) made me wonder what kind of priviledged upbring she had, since surely not many people in NY had those things!

    I'm sure the writing was different back then, too. Reporting especially. It's interesting, Joanne, that your daughter had to read it! I wonder what the teaching objective was?

  4. Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

    Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
    The Denver Post

    Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

    "Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
    Wall Street Journal

  5. Sigh. GM - did you even read the post or do you just cut and paste your statement whenever Cullen's book shows up?

    This wasn't a post about the accuracy of his book. It's about a book printed in 1887.

    You already left this message in another post on my blog. I get it. Really, I do.

  6. Very interesting Heidi. I'm sure it has stood the test of time because of the real story behind the story. But now I'll have to read it, even though the writing is terrible! I hope you enjoy your new e-reader.

  7. Interesting. It's nice to know, presumably, that the art of writing has advanced.

    And I loved the last bit, comparing it to my book. I sure hope you're right about Columbine lasting.


  8. FYI, Our buddy GM runs the Denver publisher that put out the book he's hawking. (I can't remember if you were aware of that.) I don't think he reads the posts.

  9. Dave - yes, I remembered who GM was. I think his message is plastered in every interview and mention of your book, which I discovered researching for our interview. :) The cut and paste technique certainly loses it power with that kind of blind repetition.

    I think reporting has evolved into something more literary than it used to be. Both 10 Days and Columbine were devoid of an excess of sensationalism, and yet I felt the power of your book and it's situation much more intensely. I can't imagine it won't stick around for a very long time.

    Congrats on all the awards! They seem to just keep coming. :)