Every good history teacher (and student) knows the old adage is true: Truth is stranger than fiction. You can’t make this stuff up. Reading history introduces you to new characters and plots that the greatest novelists and moviemakers couldn’t create without readers and viewers complaining about their implausibility. Are you looking for some stories too good to be true? Try these.
You might know that Wonder Woman was one of the earliest comic book superheroes, first appearing in 1941, just a few years after Superman and Batman. However, you probably don’t know The Strange History of Wonder Woman (by Jill Lepore). Not only was Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, the inventor of one of the earliest lie detector tests, but he also lived in a plural marriage with two women at the same time, fathering children by both. One of his two wives was the niece of women’s health and birth control activist Margaret Sanger and enjoyed bondage in the bedroom. See some inspiration for Wonder Woman there? Wonder Woman is very much the product of the suffrage movement; Marston’s mother and grandmother were dedicated feminists. Marston’s unorthodox upbringing and family life shaped Wonder Woman into a feminist icon, decades ahead of her time.
If you’ve read other works by Erik Larson, you know that he is a master of conflating seemingly unrelated invents into masterful storytelling. Thunderstruck is no different. The main story is the story of Guglielmo Marconi and his invention of wireless telegraphy, radio. The secondary story is of a man and his wife in London and her mysterious disappearance. Either story would make a great novel or movie, but Larson deftly brings them together, making the case that the couple’s story actually proved the feasibility of Marconi’s invention.
Looking for a little more science? Try Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. Livio writes about 5 great scientists, Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein, and their work. However, instead of focusing on their pioneering achievements, he tells the stories of their shortcomings and failures and how these flaws actually advanced science. Along the way, Livio dispels some commonly held misconceptions.