The Reason It’s Trivial

The following is a true story.

When I was but a fledgling reader, the one of the first book series I devoured was that classic of American classics, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie. The books appealed to me because they were entertaining and pleasant, accessible because book Laura was about my age, but still alien because of the historical frontier setting. Laura was frustrated with her siblings, just like me! So relatable! She uses an outhouse, while I have modern plumbing! So exotic! Laura’s adventures in pioneering were engrossing but benign..until book four. Nothing in my short life had prepared me for the bombshell waiting in By The Shores Of Silver Lake.

As By The Shores Of Silver Lake begins,  the entire Ingalls family is recovering from scarlet fever. Times were hard on the prairie! So exotic!  Everyone miraculously survives, which isn’t how things typically went down in a pre-modern medicine world, but Laura’s older sister Mary is rendered blind by the disease. LIKE SHE JUST WAKES UP BLIND WTF. I was stunned. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that blindness existed. I just didn’t know that someone could just UP AND GO BLIND. WHY HADN’T ANYONE TOLD ME PEOPLE COULD JUST UP AND GO BLIND? Mary, of course, rallies to her circumstances, gathers her resources, and perseveres with the support of her loving family. Her inspiring example made me panic. I knew if I JUST UP AND WENT BLIND I would crumple like a piece of old tin foil. Even at a young age, I recognized my lack of internal fortitude. In my panic, I began to practice being blind so that if scarlet fever ever found me in the suburbs, I would be prepared. I ate with my eyes closed. I got dressed with my eyes closed. As it turns out, I was terrible at doing those things with my eyes closed, but one thing I got really good at was taking a shower in the dark. It took a while, but I got to the point that I could shower in the dark more efficiently than with the bathroom lights on. I practiced it so often that to this day, I shower in the dark. It just feels more natural. COME AT ME. PRAIRIE DISEASES. I AM READY.

True stories are sweepingly epic, or horrifying, or chilling, or heartbreakingly sad. (Or really dumb. See paragraphs 1-2.) Resultingly, true stories are great foundations for books, but a true story isn’t a guarantee of a great book. In the right hands, a well-told true story makes a book an equivalent of a phenomenal TED Talk-compelling and informative. In the wrong hands, you end up with a book equivalent of a toaster cooking demonstration-unnecessary and boring. What about a true story really matters? Does a story rivet a reader with insight, or stop a narrative in its tracks with irrelevance? These are the questions that authors struggle with. Unless, of course, the author is historian David McCullough.

David McCullough has told some of the most fascinating true American stories there are to be told. He’s been blowing the doors off American social history since his first book, The Johnstown Flood, was published in 1968. McCullough’s painstaking research marries with his lively storytelling style to make a convivial learning experience. He’s everyone’s favorite history teacher. His presidential biographies are enough to justify his formidable reputation (John Adams, Truman, Mornings On Horseback) but McCullough also tells larger stories about the unique experiences that contribute to the American identity. From the history of the Brooklyn Bridge to the year 1776 to American aviation, McCullough will entertain you and turn you into an armchair historian all in one book. You know where armchair historians are in demand? TRIVIA NIGHT. That’s right: David McCullough will make you smarter and more popular.

For maximum American history trivia answers packed into one true story, it’s hard to do better than McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris. America in the 1830s was a country on the move, busy building on the potential and the promises of the successful Revolution. A new generation took on the task of forging what it meant to be American by engaging in the time-honored practice of traveling abroad. In particular, Americans headed to Paris to take up residence, steep themselves in culture, and study and practice in their chosen fields. The result was an America that developed upon a foundation of New World democracy and Old World intellectual tradition. A thorough education was one that embraced the value of broadened horizons, so it was not unusual to spend multiple years in Paris before sailing back across the pond. Because David McCullough wants your team to win every single American history category including the double points round, this book delivers reams of trivia about notable Americans like Elizabeth Blackwell, James Fenimore Cooper,  and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Of all the true stories that David McCullough tells in The Greater Journey, my favorite is that of Samuel Morse. Prior to The Greater Journey, the only thing I knew about Samuel Morse is that he invented the telegraph and Morse code and the only reason I knew that is because I read a million scrappy kid detective stories in which the scrappy kid detective, tied up and thrown into a closet/attic/cellar by the bad guy, gets rescued by tapping out a message in Morse code. As it turns out, before he invented the telegraph and detective rescue Morse code, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. He went to Paris to improve his painting skills, and while there he spent hours every day at the Louvre, immersing himself in as much art as he could cram into his eyeballs. He distilled his time there in one of his most famous works, The Gallery At The Louvre, 38 of the Louvre’s most famous paintings rendered in miniature.  For Americans who did not have the means to experience the greater journey, Morse’s painting – and subsequently, Morse’s communication invention – closed unimaginable distances. If you can’t parlay all that Morse knowledge into a seat at the team trivia table, then you’re just not trying hard enough.


1830s Snapchat

Recently, some scrappy medical detectives published a paper recapping 10 years of research into Mary’s blindness. It turns out Laura’s true story about scarlet fever isn’t actually true, and the likely disease culprit is not scarlet fever but viral meningoencephalitis. The end result is the same: someone can up and go blind, so I’m still showering in the dark. It’s probably time to learn Morse code, too. Just in case.


Action Items
Medical detectives are awesome.  

Image of The Gallery of the Louvre 1831–33 is in the public domain {{PD-US}}

The Reason You Should Pass The Tissues

I like to pride myself on my stoic, even-keeled approach to life, but that is a giant lying waste of time because I am an emotional emotion who goes around emoting all the time. I wouldn’t know stoic if it bit me on the ass and offered me a Band-Aid. Interestingly enough, though, I am not much of a crier. It’s not that I don’t feel sadness, it’s that I’m shallow and mostly dead inside. I don’t feel a LOT of sadness before I get distracted by jazzier feelings, like sulkiness or enthusiasm or hungry. The result of all this diversion and denial is that a lot of my crying gets done as a result of book ambush. There I’ll be, reading a perfectly innocent book, when I unexpectedly get jumped by the major sads. It can make reading in public a little tricky, but I’m a razor’s edge kind of gal. Sometimes, a catharsis via a good cry is what’s called for, even when it’s terribly inconvenient to fall apart in my dentist’s waiting room.

There are books that have made reputations by the epic sobfests they instigate. Where The Red Fern Grows. The Color Purple. Charlotte’s Web. Whichever Harry Potter book where Snape dies. I didn’t cry while reading any of these. They barely ranked a “Watery Eyes” on my personal Cry-O-Meter, but the titles listed below? My Waterloos. Let’s face them.

John Adams by David McCullough

Learning about the American Revolution sounds exciting until you realize that a lot of the American Revolution is about meetings. I don’t care if you give your meeting a fancy name like “Continental Congress”. It is still a MEETING and the only thing more boring than going to a meeting is learning dates in the 1770s when other people held meetings. The only exception to this rule is if David McCullough writes a book about the meetings. (Sorry, Lin-Manuel Miranda.) I can go on and on about David McCullough’s books (and one day I will) and his masterpiece John Adams is the American Revolution story we all deserve. This definitive biography of America’s second president is enthralling, with a sexy love story and political intrigue and an honorable, intensely principled central character. I was so absorbed by  David McCullough’s charming and sympathetically rendered portrait of John Adams, and so delighted by the details of Colonial life and times, that I was completely unprepared for John Adams to die. On the 4th of July. And the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. AND ON THE SAME DAY AS HIS BESTIE THOMAS JEFFERSON. Are you kidding me with all this? As I was hard weeping my way through this part of the book, my husband heard me crying and came to check on me.
Husband: Are you ok? What happened??
Me: (sniffles) John…Adams…diiiiieeeeed (fresh weeping)
Husband: John Adams? Federalist John Adams?
Me: (closes eyes, nods)
Husband: (makes disgusted noise and leaves)

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff’s superpower is research. More accurately, it is researching the unresearchable. She should have a place in the Marvel Universe for this because it’s at least as difficult as using archery to defeat robot armies. It is this remarkable, non-archery ability that delivered the book Cleopatra: A Life into my hot little hands. When you hear ‘Cleopatra’, what comes to mind? That’s right—Elizabeth Taylor’s questionable style choices and something vague about a snake. For all Cleopatra’s fame, very little was documented about Egypt’s defining monarch, until Stacy Schiff came along to do all the heavy lifting. For gaps where records about Cleopatra do not exist, Stacy Schiff’s meticulous research fills in with fascinating details about Egyptian history, culture, and what it meant to be a member of the royal family in power in Ptolemaic Egypt. Cleopatra was strong ruler dedicated to the welfare of her kingdom, but it was her alliance-turned-love-affair with Mark Antony that gives this biography a powerful emotional thread. Cleopatra and Marc Antony seal their fates when they unwisely take on the Roman Republic. After losing the final, decisive battle against the Roman leader Octavius, Marc Antony commits suicide. The description of Cleopatra recovering her beloved husband’s body and bringing it home to be with her prior to her own suicide is nothing short of heartbreaking. Cleopatra’s devastation and desperation as she prepares to take her life – I cracked while I read this. And it wasn’t pretty weeping, either. It was a big old ugly cry, the kind where your lashes get so wet it feels like your mascara is running right off even though you’re not wearing any mascara. That is the blurb this book needs: “I cried my imaginary shadow mascara right off my face”.



Book reading supplies: Bookmarks, comfy chair, cucumber for puffy eyes


Love Is A Mix Tape: Life And Loss, One Song At A Time by Rob Sheffield

Just typing the title of this book makes a lump well in my throat. Rob Sheffield, a music and culture critic for Rolling Stone, wrote this memoir about meeting, falling in love with, and marrying the perfect girl while a student at the University of Virginia. It is a love story about how complicated dating life can be, about marrying young and loving the intimacy of married life, and about reeling from the sudden, crushing loss of that intimacy. Rob and his wife Renee were married five years before their life together abruptly ended when Renee died from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 32. Rob Sheffield processes his shock and grief by losing himself in the 90s music that brought them together, telling the story of his life before, during, and after Renee. He sugarcoats nothing in this book, laying bare the bewildered anger and aimlessness he felt after his wife’s death, all the sadder for its contrast with the contentment and joy he found in his relationship with Renee. This book took me beyond ugly crying into showoff crying. I went for the sustained, constant quiet sobbing for the entire second half of the book, and because I just could not believe that Renee died. I kept interrupting myself to go read that part again. It’s a beautiful, moving, and brave book.


Action Items
Honorable crying mention goes to the part of Little House On The Prairie when Laura’s dog Jack dies.