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Banvard's Folly: Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity and Rotten Luck





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About the book:

Sometimes things don't exactly work out. Schemes collapse, experiments fail, luck runs out, or times and tastes simply change. It's a cliché that history is written by winners--but it's important to remember that it's usually written about winners, too. Paul Collins changes that, highlighting the failures, the frauds, and the forgotten in Banvard's Folly.

Most of Collins's starts were famous--or infamous--in their own time. For example, William Henry Ireland forged dozens of documents "by Shakespeare," including the play Vortigern, but was found out by his overenthusiastic use of "Ye Olde Sppellingge." (Oddly enough, William's father refused to believe his son was responsible even after William confessed; William was widely held to have been too stupid to have written such impressive forgeries.) Then there's respected scientist René Blondlot, who fooled himself--as well as most of the scientific community--into believing he had discovered a remarkable new form of radiation, which he named N-Rays. In reality, they were only an optical trick of peripheral vision. The book's namesake, John Banvard, amassed a fortune from his celebrated "Three Mile Painting"--a huge panoramic rendering of the Mississippi River--and then lost his fortune in an unsuccessful attempt to compete with master advertiser and showman P.T. Barnum.

Collins describes these and several other "nobodies and once-were-somebodies" in chatty, often tongue-in-cheek prose (in recounting the story of Jean François Sudre and his musical language, Collins notes "obsessive fans who hear already secret messages in music would not do their mental stability any favors by learning Solresol"). He also includes a handy "for further reading" section, should you have the desire to learn more about, for example, Symmes's theory of concentric spheres, grape propagation, or the medical benefits of blue glass. Funny, thought provoking, and sometimes poignant, Banvard's Folly helps to rescue these lost souls from the ash heap of history. Very highly recommended. --Sunny Delaney

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