Friday, June 27, 2014

Booknote: A Curious Man

Neal Thompson, A Curious Man: the Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley. New York: Crown Archetype, 2013. ISBN: 9780770436209.

This is a book that I definitely enjoyed. It reads like a good yarn. However, this is the true and amazing life of Robert Ripley, the man who created the "Believe It or Not!" cartoon and made a fortune in the process. Almost like a Horatio Alger story, Ripley started from pretty much nothing, and he went on to be a successful cartoonist and entertainer whose legacy lives on today. Ripley lived through great events in his life from the San Francisco Earthquake to World War I to the Great Depression and Prohibition. He had a great sense of adventure and curiosity, and in many ways, he was as odd as the many oddities he documented.

Once he started working as a newspaper cartoonist, he began to grow. He moved from sports to oddities as he sought his niche. He also grew into a world traveler who explored the corners of the Earth. He would write and make cartoons documenting the oddities and wonders he saw. As Thompson writes,

"he started to weave history lessons with cultural analysis, travelogue and random cogitations, weird facts and personal opinion, the type of wide-ranging commentary that would decades later be called blogging" (92, emphasis in original).

I have to say I found that passage, as a blogger myself, a bit inspiring. Ripley, the awkward buck-toothed kid would grow up to be an entertainment innovator and a man who kept his sense of wonder.

Now, let's not just idealize Ripley. As an artist, he could be temperamental. He was a bit of a womanizer and quite a drinker, but he was also a man who brought entertainment to many during the dark days of the Great Depression. As a traveler, he could be a sharp observer, but he could also be prejudiced. Yet he was also a very generous man.

Thompson does a great job in showing Ripley the artist, entertainer, and human being passionate about the strange, the odd, and curious things of the world. Ripley also had a good way with people, especially the disfigured or handicapped and those from foreign lands. Thompson goes on to write on this,

"as one who had suffered humiliation and loss in his own life, he seems to understand the discomfort of others. As one who had mingled with all classes, he seems to possess some reserve of compassion, coming across gentle and nonjudgmental" (258).

The book shows that Thompson has done great research to bring Robert Ripley to life. Ripley's legacy lives on today in his books and Odditoriums around the world. If you have ever visited a Ripley museum (which I have, the one for Dallas/Fort Worth, which is actually in Grand Prairie; it's  still in the Metroplex), or if you enjoyed his cartoons, you will certainly enjoy reading about Ripley's life. In the end, Max Schuster said of Ripley, ". . . I am more convinced than ever that the greatest Believe It or Not of them all is the story of Bob Ripley" (308). Thompson gives us this interesting story and certainly confirms Schuster's words. As an added feature, the book does include a very good set of photos and illustrations inside. This is a book that I definitely recommend. An excellent biography.

If you ask me, 5 out of 5 stars.

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