“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”
– Wilbur Wright
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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, published in 2015, was my favorite book of 2016. I read other fine books this past year including a couple of Fiction Classics, Sir Arther Conan Doyle’s first novel about Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, and G. K. Chesterton‘s metaphysical thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday.
I ended 2015 began 2016 reading another excellent non-fiction book, one few have heard of. It’s Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician by Harry Goldman, a very good biography on a fascinating man. Ken Strickfaden made a huge impact on Sci-Fi and Horror films with his special effects, starting with the classic 1931 Frankenstein.
Still, David McCullough, my favorite non-fiction writer, and his most recent work tops my list of the years reading.
Mr. McCullough begins, as usual, bringing delightful insight into his subjects, detailing the differences between the brothers. Then he goes into how close the Wright brothers were, living together (having never left home), working together, spending nearly all their time together. McCullough says,
“What the two had in common above all was unity of of purpose and unyielding determination. They had set themselves on a ‘mission’.”
On May 30, 1899, “Wilbur seated himself at [his sister] Katharine’s small, slant-top desk in the front parlor to write what would be one of the most important letters of his life. Indeed, given all it set in motion, it was one of the most important letters in history. Addressed to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington…,” he asked for a list of works published on human flight, looking for information and experiments published on the subject.
As I read about this event, and several other passages throughout the book, I got this feeling of excitement over this particular moment in time – much thanks to how McCullough artfully paints a picture on the page. At times reading The Wright Brothers I even got tears in my eyes, such is the emotional impact on me when reading McCullough’s words about great dates in history.
As I’ve said before about watching some of my favorite movies, I still get emotionally involved and closely sympathize with characters, just as the filmmaker intends, capturing our hearts. It’s a sign of getting older I guess, that I let down my guard, and allow myself to be ‘touched’ by special moments in stories, whether films or books.
And then there is the emotionally historic moment – Orville was at the controls and Wilbur on the right side of the Flyer, holding the wing to steady it. One of the Kitty Hawk locals, John T. Daniels, who greatly admired the Wrights work ethic and assisted the brothers with various tasks, was asked by Orville to ‘man’ a camera, an essential part of their experiments. On December 17, 1903, “At exactly 10:35, Orville slipped the rope restraining the Flyer and it headed forward . . . At the end of the track the Flyer lifted into the air and Daniels, who had never operated a camera until now, snapped the shutter to take what would be one of the most historic photographs of the century.”
The story that brings the Wright brothers to this point, and the events that follow are beautifully presented in what is one of David McCullough’s shorter biography’s, coming in at less than 300 pages.
The book touches on the several people who helped in a number of ways to support and encourage the Wright brothers in their efforts to create their Flying Machine. These included Octave Chanute, a notable American civil engineer, William Tate, a former Kitty Hawk postmaster, and Charlie Taylor, a mechanic, and their bicycle shop employee, who working with the Wrights, built their first airplane engine. And, their sister Katharine, to whom Orville was especially close, was also a huge support in countless ways throughout their lives.
McCullough shares briefly about what an exciting time in history this turn of the century was. Inventions around the same time included the Kodak camera, the electric Singer sewing machine, the first safety razor, and the first New York office building elevator.
The book is a complete delight. David McCullough is not only one of America’s great Historians, he simply one of Americas great Story Tellers.
As it should be when reading a book, any story, fiction or non-fiction, the subjects become real people, they become our friends.
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“Nothing ever invented provides such sustenance, such infinite reward for time spent, as a good book.”
― David McCullough