Saturday, January 3

Ignorance is not bliss

My favorite thing to do Christmas morning is to pore over a big new book. The tradition began when I was a kid. I was really into Norman Rockwell for a while so there were a few years where I would sit for hours hunched over a new Rockwell book fix on Christmas morning. One of my all time favorites was a book of antique doll houses. To this day I can easily kill an hour looking over that one. I remember the book Gnomes was a big hit. As I grew older I received books on architecture and photography and even Lady Cottington's Book of Pressed Fairies. Man, I would have LOVED that one as a kid. I still have them all, even those old Rockwell books.

This year I received The New York Times Complete First Pages. OMG. It is more fun than I can express. Well, maybe "fun" isn't the right word. "Fascinating" might be a better word for it. All I know is that I love it. The book features front pages that cover key moments in history. Not all of the front pages are in the book, of course, but they are available on three included CDs and the Internet. Any cover story can be accessed and read to completion online. It's amazing.

I love it for a variety of reasons. Flipping through the covers offers a quick glimpse at the evolution of journalism. The style of writing and layout changes slowly over the years. The overly dramatic writing style of the turn of the century is surprisingly difficult to follow.

The big events are, of course, featured: Custer's Last Stand, The Civil War begins/ends, WWI begins/end, The Triangle Waist Company fire, the stock market crash, King Tut's Tomb discovered, Lindberg's crossing of the Atlantic then the kidnapping of his son, the Hindenburg crash, Amelia Earhart goes missing and Pearl Harbor to name a few.

Those are all fascinating to read about in the language of the day but it's not the big stories that grab me. It's the small stories at the bottom of the pages that haunt me. Like the former slave who somehow managed to saved $500 to buy the freedom of her husband and son. Or the one about a prominent banker's son, and newlywed, found slumped over across the street from a brothel. The police assumed he was drunk when he was actually suffering from a gun shot wound. He was thrown in a prison cell where he died. His widow gave birth to a child months later but never recovered from the loss of her young husband and died, presumably from a broken heart. There are stories of tragedy that still happen today like the stalker who followed a mother around from town to town for years until he walked up and shot her before turning the gun on himself in front of the woman's son. There is the story of the little boy playing hide-and-go-seek who, while climbing into a box of coal in the cellar, lost his footing with his head between the slats of the box and slowly hung himself before his playmates found him dead.

It's not all depressing though. There are some stories that, while quite serious, are sometimes hilarious in the retelling. My favorite headline is "Maniac in Milwaukee Shoots Col. Roosevelt; He Ignores Wound, Speaks an Hour, Goes to Hospital". Now THAT'S a bad-ass.

Another reason I love the book is that it reveals facts I never knew about. For instance, I never knew FDR and Hitler died within a few weeks of each other. I'm not sure how that escaped my attention but there it is. I didn't know that there were protesters at screenings of Birth of a Nation back when it was released. I thought the outrage over the film came years later. Being a big fan of protest I'm always happy to hear about folks protesting before their time. Don't even get me started on the Suffragettes.

Mostly the front pages illustrate how little human nature changes over time. There are still strikes, wars, robberies, murders, advances in technology and, everyone's favorite, run away brides (and grooms). Check out the similarities between these two stories.

The New York Time Complete Front Pages is a great way to spend an afternoon. It comes with a little plastic magnifying strip but I recommend you bring your own high powered magnifying glass. What? You don't have one? Well get one! I promise it will take you back to Christmas mornings past.

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