Tuesday, January 26, 2010
How History Plays a Role in the Value of a Book
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.