Strange stories, amazing facts

In the winter of 1976-77, my brother and I were obsessed with a dictionary-sized book published by the Reader’s Digest Association. (At that time, at age 9, I thought the magazine was pronounced “Reader’s Diggest,” meaning it was packed with articles that readers really dug, man. What can I say? The seventies were hard on all of us.)

The book had a red marbled cover and sober blue binding, with the title embossed in bold gilt lettering: Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. There was no subtitle. There was no need for one – the title promised everything we wanted, and lucky for us, the book delivered.

Strange Stories Amazing Facts

On long car trips, we’d sit in the back seat fighting over whose turn it was to explore chapters such as “Strange customs and superstitions,” “Hoaxes, frauds and forgeries,” and “Eccentrics and prophecies.” We thrilled to photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, Sri Lankan fire walkers and “O-Kee-Pa, The Torture Test,” wherein “young men of the Mandan tribe of Indians” endured a brutal and horrific rite of passage that culminated in chopping off their own pinky fingers.

We learned that people sometimes spontaneously combust, and that an Italian monk named Padre Pio suffered Christlike wounds in his hands called stigmata. We discovered that pigs were flogged in medieval France for breaking the law, and that the entire crew of the Mary Celeste disappeared one day, leaving the ship to float empty around the Atlantic. We became acquainted with Anastasia, the supposed Romanov survivor; and Spring-Heeled Jack, a demon who leapt about London in the 19th century, spitting blue fames in the faces of young women. We never wanted to read anything else, ever.

Spring-heeled jack is in the lane!

Not long ago, I bought a copy of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts on Ebay, and it’s just as riveting today as it was when I was 9. But now the best part to read is the final chapter: “The World of Tomorrow.” Cutting edge predictions from 1976:

  • “By the end of this century, giant tugs may be plying the South Atlantic, towing icebergs seven miles long to water the green fields of the Sahara.”
  • “It looks as if the day of the wheel is over.” (illustrated by a photo of an “experimental monorail system”)
  • “Robot trucks could end road chaos”
  • “Pilots may soon be able to fly simply by thinking”

And my favorite:

  • “With concentrated, well-funded research, within a decade, the United States could have a solar industry that would supply a good proportion of our power needs.”

    7 responses to “Strange stories, amazing facts”

    1. Bryan Waterman says:

      I certainly couldn’t have imagined wireless internet connection in 1976-77. You might as well have told me I’d have my own personal R2D2 and C3PO.

    2. Lisa Parrish says:

      Yeah, isn’t it weird that, although ARPANET had been around for years, and the term “Internet” existed as early as 1974, there was no real advance indication that anything like the Internet we know today would develop out of that? One of my favorite business quotes is Bill Gates’s alleged 1981 statement that “640K should be enough for anyone” on a personal computer. Of course, he totally missed the boat on the Internet thing anyway, but I love the idea that this great technology was out there, germinating, and great technological and business minds initially didn’t see the use for it.

      Along those same lines, I’m convinced that the technology behind Segways is similar, in the sense that Segways themselves aren’t an earth-changing invention, but the technology behind them is. I think there will be uses for the technology, which is jaw-droppingly amazing when you think about it, that we haven’t considered yet. But it seems that only Dean Kamen and I feel this way, judging from the reactions of people I’ve told this to…

    3. Dave says:

      Maybe that’s ’cause Dean Kame let your ride his personal Segway.

      I loved stuff like this when I was a kid. There was the obsession with freaky things: I checked out every book on the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, psychic phenomena, and UFOs that our elementary school library held. And the obsession with a glorious future: There was a particular volume at the main branch of the city library called something like the Kids’ Whole Future Catalog that was filled with drawings of monorails, eco-friendly cities of tomorrow, even AIRSHIPS the size of football stadiums that carried passengers around the world in luxury. Damn, that was a nice future.

    4. It’s interesting how kids love weird stuff like this. Maybe it has to do with sorting out how the world works and reconciling all the ways in which it doesn’t. And perhaps reading about slightly scary phenomena gives kids a sense of mastery over it. I know I felt a lot safer knowing what to do if I ever encountered a poltergeist!

      Adriana

    5. Pandora Brewer says:

      It is weird what you connect with as a kid and what it probably says about how you constructed your world. I was always bored by the Big Foot, Loch Ness stuff (of course there are vestiges from prehistoric times, duh), incredulous of the space age stuff (jet packs, whatever), but now stigmata, that was cool. I read the accounts of Father Pio and Saint Francis and Theresa like a primer text, staring at my palms intently . . . waiting. Up until the late 19th century stigmatics always bled from their palms and then when histocial research showed that the Romans actually crucified their victims through the wrists, they started bleeding from the wrists. For some this may push the verdict closer to psychosimatic (sp?) phenomena than divine manifestation, luckily as a mixy Catholic Mormon, I chalked it up as modern revelation. And never doubted the trueness of the experience. I am with you Adriana, it was about figuring something out, controlling the mystery in hopes that you might be touched by it. And therefore special yourself.

    6. Pandora — I thought of your comment here when I read this piece on Huffington Post.

    7. William says:

      Wow, I’ve told people for years about that book. When I was seven and my sister was nine we got a copy of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. We completely devoured it and read stories to each other all the time from it.