One entertaining read was Brad Meltzer’s History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (Workman Publishing, 252 pages, $24.95). Assisted by writer Keith Ferrell, Meltzer, who hosts the History Channel’s popular show “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded,” analyzes 10 historical events shrouded with mystery.
Eight of these events have to do with American history. In addition to looking at some modern conspiracy theories — the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the possible cover-up of UFO appearances at Roswell and Area 51, the disappearance of the hijacker DB Cooper — Meltzer shines the light of his wit and reason on John Wilkes Booth’s escape and the unrelated disappearance of Confederate gold at the end of the Civil War.
To those unfamiliar with the Booth mystery, the chapter on Lincoln’s assassination will prove particularly fascinating. Standard history books tell us that Booth, after shooting Lincoln, fled Washington and was later shot to death in a barn in Port Royal, Va. Soldiers and other observers on hand that night gave varying reports of the dead Booth’s appearance, describing him, for example, as having reddish hair when Booth himself had jet-black hair. (Here I paused over this piece of evidence: Booth was an actor by trade and could use have easily changed the color of his hair). Later, some of Booth’s relatives claimed to have been in contact with him, and for 50 years a man named Bates toured the country displaying a mummified body which he advertised as being John Wilkes Booth.
Meltzer is not one of those nuts who corners you at a party and begins spit-talking while demanding you believe whatever wacko theory has blown his circuit-board, a contemporary mental condition usually induced by far too many hours on weird internet sites. No, Meltzer pokes fun at outlandish conjectures and approaches his chosen mysteries fully charged in the cranium. At the end of the Booth piece, for example, he points out that since we have access to DNA evidence both from Booth and from his brother, Edwin, it should be easy to compare samples from both men’s remains to establish their relationship.
Included in this book are many photographs, sidebars with facts and details and 30 removable facsimile documents. These reproductions help bring alive the historical era and deepen the reader’s interest in the mystery under discussion. The chapter on Booth, for example, holds an envelope containing three documents: a wanted poster from the time, with pictures of three of the assassins and rewards of $100,000 for their arrest; the will of the man claiming at his death to be Booth and a letter from Booth written in 1864.
Of equal delight is Steven Gilbar’s Bibliotopia; or Mr. Gilbar’s Book of Books & Catch-all of Literary Facts & Curiosities (David R. Godine, Publisher, 177 pages, $23.95). This is a “dipper” book, page after page of lists, quotations, facts about publishing and printing. Crammed into this small volume are quotations from George Bernard Shaw and Tom Robbins, lists of the prizes awarded in fiction and poetry, a catalogue of pseudonyms used by different authors, guides to the pronunciation of certain authors’ names, French and Latin expressions, musicals based on novels, operas based on books, and much more, all designed to inform and amuse readers. (I am embarrassed to report I never knew the word “book” derives from “beech,” because the ancient Saxons and Germans scribbled runes on pieces of beechen board. Looking up the ancestor of so common a word simply never occurred to me).
As in so many of the books published by Godine, Bibliotopia is also distinguished by its illustrations, in this case by the art of Elliott Banfield. Described on the cover and title page as “decorations,” the computer-generated portraits of Marcel Proust, Alice Walker, and other writers add to the delight of roaming Bibliotopia.
Finally, for logophiliacs, grammaticasters, and all the rest of us who live in a state of merry, drunken infatuation with the English language, there is The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage by Kingsley Amis. Though an older book, The King’s English can still be found in used bookshops and online.
Online reviews of this volume on Amazon remain available and can provide some amusement on a slow evening. These online critics are correct in stating that The King’s English should not be employed as a book of grammar and usage, but some miss the target when firing at Amis for his condescension, snobbery and biting humor. By his own admission, Amis was sometimes — well, many times — a condescending snob who could use words as knives and cleavers on those who roused his ire or his contempt.
For heaven’s sakes — that mordant wit is the best reason to read this book.