Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Strange Stories, Amazing Facts



When I was eleven going on twelve, a fascinating book came into my life: Strange Stories, Amazing Facts by Readers Digest.

I was not a reader as a young boy and every book I attempted to read could neither hold my gnat-like attention nor contain any possible information I could deem remotely useful. Then this came along.

My mother was working for a religious educational director for the Catholic Church in the town next to ours. One day, her boss handed her this book, specifically with me in mind. They had been clearing out the library of the elderly monsignor and this book came with the added bonus of the odor of his cigars. To this day, it is impossible for me to look at this book without recalling that smell.

So what was in this book? Tales of the supernatural, mythical beasts, feats of improbable strength, a glimpse into the future (from a decidedly narrow cold-war, sci-fi perspective). It was all the things that a young boy wishes to have fascinating his mind, before his mind knows how to be fascinated by girls.

The chapter on the supernatural, I have perhaps read three dozen times. I’d always fostered an obsession with the paranormal, one that relentlessly annoyed my family. Here now was a book bearing evidence that ghosts were REAL – after all there were photographs of writings they’d scrawled on walls. You can’t refute evidence like that. One photograph even showed how some ghosts could actually present their reflection on tiled kitchen floors. It all gave me the dual relief and terror that comes with substantiation. (In consideration of all the paranormal superstition in those pages, I love the irony that this book came from a monsignor’s personal library).

The hard cover-bound formality of this book affected authority while offering the promise of knowledge and a toe-hold into the unknown. Things got weird for me by the time age twelve rolled about and it seemed all the boys in my class were completely seized by the alien abduction of puberty, a process that was eluding me. They’d all morphed into a budding, diesel fueled man-ness. A chasm developed between them and me and each day this chasm grew wider while its menacing voice grew deeper.

During this time, if felt like every boy I knew was abandoning me for a world where they possessed knowledge and experiences that made their lives more dynamic and successful. If only there’d been a book that explained life in all its mysteries and injustices.

Was Strange Stories, Amazing Facts that book? Well in the end, it was not of course. Sure, other boys were unfolding into the facts of life, but did they know all the Amazing facts? Did they know about the most haunted house in England? Did they know how the Jersey Devil could run through the night, burning his hoof prints in the ground? Probably not.

The interweb is rife with posts like this one – nostalgic yutzes like me fondly recalling this richly wonderful book of the ludicrous. And so many of these other voices echo what I’ve kvetched on above – wildly imaginative boys who’d stumbled over Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. In the end their remembrance is always the same – this book provided fun and escape for the fertile soil of an imaginative boy’s mind.

In my adulthood I often find myself mired in one predictably mundane rut or another. “Strange” and “Amazing” have become subjective gauges as I no longer seem to be surprised by anything. The concept of “Facts” has become elusive as well – nothing seems to be a fact anymore as the more I know, the less I understand. In the end, we have to look at life differently and realize that, when broken down into compartments; ordinary life can contain plenty that is strange and a lot that’s pretty amazing.

6 comments:

  1. Great book! It's a permanent fixture on my night stand. I've probably read the thing a total of 6 times all the way through. Awesome book!

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  2. It is wonderful. It has such a time-capsule other-worldliness about it. Campy, yes.. occasionally ridiculous...sure. But this book is always going to be like an old friend to me. I'm glad to find other readers out there who share such warm feelings for it.

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  3. My siblings and I would huddle together to read the scary stories. I can still see the pictures showing "mary ann" etched on the wall of the scariest house in England (a Vicar's residence I think)and the story of the Cardiff giant. A staple at slumber parties of 1978! My brother and I looked for my Dad's copy, to no avail could not find it and purchased a copy on eBay. Can't wait to peruse through it again!

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  4. well i found this book among my collection and started reading it, and i couldn't put it down! i would stay up into the early hours of the morning, caught up in the stories and facts shared among the pages. this book remains the best i've read, and i doubt anything could change that.

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  5. Young girls, too. :) I found this book at the musty old house of a musty old gentleman my mother used to visit. He waved his hand and told me to keep it. I pored over it with a level of obsession only a 12-year-old future geek can possess. Twentymumblemumble years later, I have only fond memories of it.

    It's around here somewhere. I really need to go find it and see what the future holds. :)

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  6. one of the best books ever...trying like hell to find my copy of it, loved the screaming skulls of bettiscombe manor :)

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