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Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of…
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Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the… (original 2001; edition 2002)

by Paul S. Collins

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Title:Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World
Authors:Paul S. Collins
Info:Picador (2002), Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:Biography

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Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World by Paul Collins (2001)

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
While the book promises biographies of obscure people, I had read about most of the people featured here before; indeed several of them, such as Robert Coates, Delia Bacon and Psalmanazar, are fixtures of books on eccentric people.

What makes "Banvard's Folly" stand out from other studies of eccentrics is that Collins treats his subjects with great sympathy, giving us a more rounded appreciation of Coates, Bacon et al., rather than odd people to be laughed at.

I'm hoping for a sequel. ( )
1 vote MiaCulpa | Jan 10, 2014 |
This was a quite lovely read, about forgotten people in barely forgotten times. Only in America would we consider these gentlemen and gentlewomen to be 'losers', simply because they had an idea that others stole or their achievements have been forgotten by each succeeding generation. Some of them were just plain eccentrics, and I think we can look at the 21st century and see we have the same idealists today.

The title derives from John Banvard, who created grand works of art on rollout canvas, which drew standing-room only crowds in the 19th century. He shone before the age of cinema, which basically made his type of work obsolete. My favorite story was that of Rene Blondlot, a French scientist who 'discovered' the N-Ray, which really was nothing but some changes of light prisms. He believed deeply that he had discovered something extraordinary, and was subsequently laughed out of existence when his theory was disproved.

Here's to the 'losers'...bless them all.


Book Season = YearRound (enjoy!) ( )
1 vote Gold_Gato | Sep 16, 2013 |
Most of the people in this collection tried so hard to succeed that you can't help but root for them, even knowing that being included in a book of this title, they failed. Well, that isn't entirely true. Ephraim Bull spent years cross-breeding and cultivating grapes until he created the Concord, which became the most commercially successful grape. His failure was no fault of his own, just that the law didn't allow patents on life forms, including new breeds of plants. This allowed every nursery in the country to buy one of his grape vines and start their own Concord business. Bull, who lived long enough to see a man named Welch become famous for his Concord grape juice, died penniless after losing his money trying to introduce another new grape.
Other people in the book include the man who built a precursor to the modern subway, another who spent his life trying to get his international musical language to catch on, and the stories of William Ireland and Robert Coates. Ireland, a neglected teenager, forged Shakespeare's signature and gave his "discovery" to his father as a way to gain approval. His father's regard for the boy's treasure hunting rose to the point that William was able to pen several poems and plays and pass them off as newly found works by Shakespeare.
Coates was another who adored Shakespeare, but he wanted to be an actor. He arrived in Bath in 1809, and made a spectacle of himself by adorning his clothes, shoes and cane with diamonds. His carriage was in the shape of a giant clam. And he put on performances of Romeo and Juliet at the local theater, but in his shows Romeo was the only star. His death scene would go on and on, and he would even get up and repeat it, as the audience would encourage him to do. Coates could fill the theater night after night as everyone loved to watch his horrible acting, and he took their heckles for encouragement. ( )
1 vote mstrust | Apr 24, 2013 |
An anthology of once-famous, once-infamous, or never famous men (with one exception) who were hot stuff at the time but now are obscure or entirely forgotten. Collins (the author of Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism which I reviewed here) has chosen an interesting assortment of scientists, scammers, and artists to profile. He has an engaging narrative voice and generally is successful in evoking each person and engaging the reader's empathy. I'd have wished for a few more women, but women's historical footprints are often fainter.

I enjoy a variant on word golf that I call "book golf," in which I notice similarities and coincidences across unrelated books that I read randomly in close temporal relation to each other. I also enjoy encountering references to less-known books that I've read. One such in Collins is an offhand reference to Wood's How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers, a whimsical out-of-print book that I own in its 1959 paperback incarnation. Originally published in 1917, it uses woodcuts and poems to show the differences between two things that sound (and are drawn) similar, such as "the Antelope" and "the Cantelope." It's slightly crazy-seeming and was terribly absorbing when I was a child.

Collins makes errors here and there, nothing major but still obvious. For example, in discussing viticulture, he points out that for consistency, grapes must be propagated from clones since the genetic material varies from seed to seed (p. 115). However, on page 121, his big point is that "Grapes have seeds"; he tells us this to show how Ephraim Bull's competitors were able to steal his new Concord grape. However, the seeds should make no difference; it's the cuttings that would. Since Collins then immediately goes on to say this, it's not clear why he even makes his erroneous comment about seeds.

This would be a good companion piece to a book on mediums or eccentric inventors. To play book golf, read it with a book on Formosa, Mark Twain, or coalt blue glass. You'll know why. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
This book consists of the story of inventors and scientists with amazing ideas which failed. Some were pretty silly to start with, but all were interesting. ( )
  gbelik | Dec 24, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Paul Collinsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kooy, Henne van derTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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THIS BOOK IS DEDICATEDTO MY PREDECESSORS:

Van Wyck Brooks
Isaac D'israeli
Stewart Holbrook
Edmund Pearson


AND TO ANY PUBLISHER WHO WILL PUT THEIR WORKS BACK IN PRINT.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312300336, Paperback)

The historical record crowns success. Those enshrined in its annals are men and women whose ideas, accomplishments, or personalities have dominated, endured, and most important of all, found champions. John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, and Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets are classic celebrations of the greatest, the brightest, the eternally constellated.

Paul Collins' Banvard's Folly is a different kind of book. Here are thirteen unforgettable portraits of forgotten people: men and women who might have claimed their share of renown but who, whether from ill timing, skullduggery, monomania, the tinge of madness, or plain bad luck-or perhaps some combination of them all-leapt straight from life into thankless obscurity. Among their number are scientists, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and adventurers, from across the centuries and around the world. They hold in common the silenced aftermath of failure, the name that rings no bells.

Collins brings them back to glorious life. John Banvard was an artist whose colossal panoramic canvasses (one behemoth depiction of the entire eastern shore of the Mississippi River was simply known as "The Three Mile Painting") made him the richest and most famous artist of his day. . . before he decided to go head to head with P. T. Barnum. René Blondot was a distinguished French physicist whose celebrated discovery of a new form of radiation, called the N-Ray, went terribly awry. At the tender age of seventeen, William Henry Ireland signed "William Shakespeare" to a book and launched a short but meteoric career as a forger of undiscovered works by the Bard -- until he pushed his luck too far. John Symmes, a hero of the War of 1812, nearly succeeded in convincing Congress to fund an expedition to the North Pole, where he intended to prove his theory that the earth was hollow and ripe for exploitation; his quixotic quest counted Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe among its greatest admirers.

Collins' love for what he calls the "forgotten ephemera of genius" give his portraits of these figures and the other nine men and women in Banvard's Folly sympathetic depth and poignant relevance. Their effect is not to make us sneer or revel in schadenfreude; here are no cautionary tales. Rather, here are brief introductions-acts of excavation and reclamation-to people whom history may have forgotten, but whom now we cannot.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:35 -0400)

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