Saturday, November 16, 2013

I still find each day too short for ... all the books I want to read

Title:Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
Author: Matthew Goodman
Pages: 480
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-0345527264

When I was in elementary school, I read a biography of Nellie Bly. It was one of those short, simplistic children's biographies from the school library. If I remember right, I filled out a book report form which looked like a train car that snaked around the classroom with the slogan, “Reading Keeps You on Track” or something similar. I was in a phase where I read a lot of biographies of women who struggled against gender discrimination of their times – Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and Susan B. Anthony. When it can time to make some decisions in my life, I returned to these heroes and role models to guide me. That's the power of good biographies.

Ken Eikenberry wrote a piece entitled “5 Reasons to Read More Biographies”. He believes that biographies allow you to:
  1. stand on the shoulders of giants
  2. remind you that history repeats itself
  3. promote self discovery
  4. see the world in new ways
  5. have mentors at a distance
I think Eikenberry is correct.  Reading biographies can show a lot more than just the person's life.  When really engaged with the story, biographies make me think deeper about history, how people respond and react to their situations, and makes me think about how I might react.  It is well known that many of our presidents and CEOs have been readers of biographies.

As I read Eighty Days, I not only learned more about Nellie Bly and was introduced to Elizabth Bisland, but I was also struck by the enormity of the things I did not know and the ability of time to bury sensational stories. It made me wonder how much of what I find in current events to be unforgettable will actually even be remembered in 10, 20 or 100 years. But, let me go back to the beginning.

Eighty Days alternates between telling the story of Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) and Elizabeth Bisland. Nellie was from a working class background who gained a following as a reported at the Pittsburgh Dispatch and later the New York World. Her early stories focused on the plight of poor and working women and was best known for her insider expose on a poorly run mental hospital. At one point, Nellie tried to convince her editor that she should try to beat Jules Verne's fictional trip around the world in eighty days. Being young and a woman, the editor initially denied her request, but a year later, he sent her off. Being practical, Nellie traveled with one major outfit and a small carry bag, to hasten her ability to change modes of transportation. In her travels, she was able to meet Jules Verne and finished the trip in just over seventy-two days. Throughout her journey, she reported back to the paper, and became a major celebrity wherever she visited.

Not to be outdone, The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sent its own reporter around the world in the opposite direction. Elizabeth Bisland had a background very different from Nellie's. She was born and raised in the south – well-read and even conducted salons in New York that attracted up and coming writers and artists. She was refined and said to be beautiful and captivating. When the Cosmopolitan heard about Bly's trip, they gave Elizabeth two days to be ready. Unfortunately, her journey in the opposite direct brought her into some very difficult weather, and she arrived in New York days after Nellie Bly.

It was well into the journey that Bly learned she had a rival. What both women didn't realize was the sensationalism of their travels back home. Newspapers across the country reported (quite often falsely) tales of their trip. A contest was conducted with a prediction of when Bly would arrive in New York. Board games were created. Nellie Bly's image was used in multiple advertisements. These were the conversations of the proverbial watercooler.

This was the first realization I had. If the author is correct, and I have no doubt he is, for almost three
months, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were on the lips and minds of most people across the country – like the Kardashians in all the tabloids and magazines today. Yet, within a year, both women struggled to continue their work as reporters and Nellie Bly couldn't make it as a lecturer on the circuit. Although many people today might recognize the name Nellie Bly, few would recall Elizabeth Bisland. Even with the biographies I read as a child, I was not introduced to this rival of Bly. This was one of those books that literally many my mind shift – it had to re-construct what I thought I knew.

Which led me to the next epiphany – there is a whole lot in the world that I don't know! As John Burroughs said, “I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”