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Detailed history of the early days of human flight,
This review is from: Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies (Hardcover)
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Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone gives us a detailed history of the Wright Brothers and the early days of human flight. And I mean very detailed. In fact, probably for many readers, too much detail. Keeping track of all the characters described can distract from the story. But for me, having read different histories of that era, that level of detail was fine.
Lawrence Goldstone focuses on the "battle to control the skies" that was fought between the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss. After the Wright Brothers flew their historic plane on Kitty Hawk, they went into stealth mode to try to sell their technology, relying on their landmark patent to give them a monopoly on flight. The problem was that as the Wright Brothers shifted their focus from flight to the patent fight, their unimproved technology became dated and their lawsuits hampered their competitors like Glenn Curtiss from making improvements as well.
The upshot was that the United States got left behind in the aviation industry. In fact, when airplanes took to the skies over the battlefields of World War I, the airplanes were made by Germany, France and Great Britain. None were of American design and none, with a minor exception, were of American manufacture. The blame for that shameful showing lies, it seems, squarely on Wilbur Wright's shoulders, whose overwrought overwork in the patent wars cost him his life (according to his sister Katherine).
In telling that basic story, though, Lawrence Goldstone gives the stage to many other characters as well. That's where the book has its weaknesses. The story line jumps around a lot. Indeed, at one point in the story, Wilbur Wright dies, but then a few pages later we are back hearing about when he was alive. People come in and out of the story at odd moments. If read as a narrative work, from first page to last, Birdmen does not read very well. Too jumpy, too busy, and too detailed.
I liked the book best by jumping around myself. I didn't read it from cover to cover, but dipped in here and there. Eventually I read it all, but it worked fine for me to read the stories out of sequence, since they are largely self-contained.
Nothing in Birdmen surprised me. Many of the stories were new to me, but those that were new were minor. Everything major I already knew. Still, I've never seen a book like this one that blends factual history with narrative history in quite this way. I liked the result. Hope you do too.