Friday, May 10, 2013

Rootless Lit: Eighty Days

I was put on to this book by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, via her post, How To Pack Like Nellie Bly, Pioneering Journalist.

The book is Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World.

Credit: Barnes and Noble

The book is an account of two American women's race in 1889, to "girdle the earth" - one going east and the other west - with three objectives: 1) travel around the world in less than the "80 days" in Jules Verne's famous book about a man's round-the-world adventure; 2) do it faster than the other woman; and 3) sell newspapers for the World and Cosmopolitan.

In addition to the plot of the journey, Matthew Goodman puts the story in the context of the day, touching on topics such as: 
  • discrimination against women
  • racism
  • ethnocentrism
  • how the American railroad affected culture and enterprise
  • "stunt" journalism
  • working and living conditions of laborers in the U.S. and elsewhere

In re: discrimination, racism, and working/living conditions it is, at turns, inspiring and disheartening to compare the past with the present. 

Technologically, it's nothing short of amazing to consider how far the world has progressed in transportation, medicine, and communication in the span of 125 years. 

On women

I read Eighty Days just after re-reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. I don't remember the point at which I realized Mr. Asimov made virtually no reference to women, but it slowly came to me that in his future universe - notwithstanding all of the scientific advances over the thousands of years into the future he wrote about - it was a universe in which, with rare exception, only men figured in current events. And even in the unusual case where a girl or woman played an important role, Mr. Asimov assigned her with the usual, circumscribed boundaries for women: the use of her beauty or feminine charms to achieve her aims. Why couldn't an intelligent author like Mr. Asimov factor in the possibility that thousands of years hence, women might join the mainstream of history?

It was in this frustrated frame of mind that I read Eighty Days, not to be surprised by the many discriminations against women during the 1880s the author shares, but to consider how, in so many parts of the world today (including the U.S.) women are still denied self-determination. Said abilities to make one's own choices about getting married, getting divorced, becoming pregnant, giving birth, getting an education, how to dress, where one can walk, if one can drive, to whom one can speak, places one can enter, where to work, how to create, all restricted under the guise of religion, protection, "respect for women," or culture - thereby rationalizing the bars on the windows.

On time

Until I read Eighty Days, I had no idea that it was the railroad companies that established a standardized time in the U.S. Fascinating.

The originals

One of the disappointments I had in Eighty Days was the dearth of direct quotes from Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's books. You can find the originals here:  
  • Nellie Bly: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days - audio - here or here.
  • Nellie Bly: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days - online text - here
  • Elizabeth Bisland: In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around the World - online text - here
  • Elizabeth Bisland: In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around the World - downloadable to ebook
Of the two women, it seems that Ms. Bisland was more gracious and more positive in perspective than Ms. Bly, even though the latter was the far greater celebrity of the time. For example, where Ms. Bly saw cause for complaint, Ms. Bisland saw beauty and excitement.

For me, Eighty Days served as a reference for comparison between the world as it was only 125 years ago and how it is today, and for that, I appreciate Mr. Goodman's work.

I do still shake my head at Nellie Bly's decision to buy a macaque monkey in the middle of her journey, wondering "what was she thinking"?! And it's one of the loose ends Mr. Goodman leaves for the readers - what eventually happened to the mean creature, forced to go around the world in a small cage?

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