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Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World Paperback – May 3, 2002


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (May 3, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312300336
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312300333
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 5.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #249,751 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

Thirteen wry biographical essays about people, once famous, who have disappeared from memory. In 1903, the French physicist René Blondlot was so eager to follow up the recent discovery of X-rays that he discovered N-rays, which do not exist. In the eighteen-forties, the American painter John Banvard gained international celebrity for his painting of the Mississippi River—a panorama which measured over fifteen thousand square feet. And in the seventeen-nineties, when England was suffering a fit of bardolatry, a London lawyer's clerk, William Henry Ireland, began "finding" Shakespeare documents. After these forgeries became collectors' items as forgeries, Ireland met the demand by making forgeries of his forgeries, and every line from his pen remains extremely valuable.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Review

"No writer better articulates our interest in the confluence of hope, eccentricity, and the timelessness of the bold and strange than Paul Collins. [This book is] sublimely odd, frequently funny, and better yet, thrillingly factual."--Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

"Though the most profound question is 'What is the meaning of life?' the most human question 'Don't they know how special I am?' Paul Collins knows. Thanks to these fascinating tales, his forgotten attention-seekers must be rolling over in their graves, if only to finally bask in the limelight."--Sarah Vowell, author of Take the Cannoli

"Collins's swift, humorous prose makes for satisfying schadenfreude."--Time Out New York

"[A] lively treatise on eccentricity, flawed genius, and star-crossed obsession."--The Washington Times

"An unqualified success."--The Seattle Times

"A remarkably lucid and entertaining peek into the admittedly strange lives of the characters [Collins] has unearthed . . . A witty meditation on the vagaries of fame and the human drive for validation."--Tucson Weekly

"With crisp prose and engaging storytelling, Collins contemplates the whims of fortune and the foolhardiness of humanity."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Hearteningly strange . . . Stretching the bounds of nonfiction's propensity for weirdness, Collins exhumes little-known figures [and] recounts their perversely inspiring battles against the more logical ways of the world."--The Onion

"The thirteen lives and times to which Collins devotes his considerable scholarship and manifest narrative gifts in Banvard's Folly are the flash-in-the-pan, briefly notable, and long-ignored ones-of-a-kind, who remind us of the nobility and futility, the grandeur and begrudgery of our endeavors. Of Collins's endeavor, however, we can proclaim our permanent thanks and amazement and heartiest welcome."--Los Angeles Times Book Review

More About the Author

Paul Collins is a writer specializing in science history, memoir, and unusual antiquarian literature. His 8 books have been translated into 10 languages, and include Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (2003) and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars (2011). His freelance work includes pieces for the New York Times, Slate, and New Scientist, and he appears on NPR Weekend Edition as its "literary detective" on odd old books.

Collins lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University.

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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The author is a very clear writer and makes these short biographies very entertaining and interesting to read.
R. Lau
A wonderful book that sheds light on some important and obscure characters of American history that otherwise would be forgotten about.
Chris N. Dale
While not forgiving his subjects' excesses or blind spots, he manages to tell their stories with a real sense of empathy.
W. C HALL

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By D. W. Casey on May 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is a great book. A current trend in popular history is to write histories of great people who achieved success but who are not household names (consider the book "Longitude"); Paul Collins turns this idea on its head by writing the stories of 13 people whose ideas, frankly, did not have a lot of merit, but who were famous in their day.
The title story, Banvard's Folly, tells the tale of the artist John Banvard -- world famous in the 1850s, but utterly forgotten today, whose great moving panorama of the Mississippi River made him rich, but who ultimately was destroyed competing with P.T. Barnum.
Other stories include "The Man With N-Ray Eyes", which relates how a French scientist believes erroneously that he has found a new source of radiation; "A.J. Pleasonton's Blue Light Special", which discusses the 1870s fad concerning the healing properties of light reflected through blue glass, and numerous others, including the story of a Shakepeare forger, a woman's quest to prove Shakespeare's works were written by Francis Bacon and others, and the development of the pneumatic train.
The book is a little sad, because each of the characters really believes in their ideas, even though they are rejected by society. But instead of a happy ending, these stories all end badly for the protagonists -- they end up mocked and forgotten.
The book is remarkable for its scholarship -- researching the forgotten intellectual and cultural history of a previous century is no easy task; but Mr. Collins brings the reader back into the culture of the times easily. The stories are entertaining and very amusing.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Jeff Topham on June 27, 2002
Format: Paperback
BanvardŐs Folly is a lovingly-researched tribute to the forgotten, the mistaken, and the discredited. The book profiles 13 historical figures, many of whom were among the most well-known figures of their day. Each, however, pursued his or her genius to a historical dead end, and their reputations and achievements have long since vanished into obscurity. Although each of these profiles is ultimately a study in failure, these ill-fated individuals demonstrate a brilliance, eccentricity, or audacity that is often breathtaking. CollinsŐ subjects may be failures, but they are spectacular failures, visionaries and dreamers who failed with an astounding degree of ambition, style, and verve. Exceptional.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By W. C HALL VINE VOICE on May 19, 2003
Format: Paperback
"Banvard's Folly" is a wonderful book, thanks to the talents of author Paul Collins. As you have probably gathered by now from other write-ups, this book tells the story of 13 people, once prominent, and now largely forgotten. They each earned inclusion in this book because of a grand failure of some sort. In other hands, this material could have been a tool for ridicule; but Collins strikes just the right tone here. While not forgiving his subjects' excesses or blind spots, he manages to tell their stories with a real sense of empathy. It's obvious that a lot of research went into this volume, but Collins never overpowers the reader with it; each chapter just seems to glide along. If history's lesser lights are of interest to you, you should enjoy this.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Snorri Wolfersson on June 15, 2005
Format: Paperback
I absolutely loved this book. Paul Collins takes thirteen chapters of American myth that have been largely forgotten and turns them into an eye opening treatise on the failure of will, the folly of hubris, and the absolute madness of challenging the status quo. Mr. Collins' style leads to frequent laugh out loud asides while telling the story of folks who either succeeded and then lost, had a mad idea that failed (but not for lack of trying), or who had the sheer will to make themselves momentarily inportant only to be swallowed up by the tide of time. Every person and idea profiled was at one time wildly popular or important and each eventually fell from favor for one reason or another. Sometimes it was common sense that triumphed, sometimes fad ran its course, sometimes folks just got too bizarre for accomodation. I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a look into uncommon history. Mr. Collins has done us the favor of rummaging through the musty, dusty, long forgotten bookstacks of some of our most prestigious libraries and he has come up with a winner of a book. Save yourself the moldy lungs and long hours of researching the library basements yourself and read this work.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By villekulla on May 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
I'm not too proud to admit that I started reading this book purely for the schadenfreude. Dreamers whose bold visions go wrong are a reliable source of humor. What surprised me was that I actually felt uplifted by Banvard's Folly. Mr. Collins doesn't go for the cheap shot here. He treats his subjects with affection, as much for their foibles as their nobility. It reminded me of someone who once said of Jeff Koons that it was impossible to tell whether or not he was making fun of his subjects. I think that Collins truly appreciates these characters, even as he chronicles their catastrophes.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Tanya Abramovitch on January 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
This humurous and sympathetic presentation of thirteen lives of historical nobodies is a sheer delight to read. Among his subjects, Collins chose a showman, a forger, a scholar, an imposter, a wannabe actor and several scientists and inventors, not to mention a businessman or two. Some tales are absurd and hilarious, while others are sad and even tragic to a degree. All are well-written and fascinating.

I selected this title to kick off a book club in my library and everyone loved it as much as I did. It is highly recommended.
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