ESSAY REVIEW: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and DepravedThe Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Online Available Free: Grantland

Available within the collection: The Great Shark Hunt

This story is cited as the first work of gonzo journalism, a highly entertaining style of immersion journalism which takes liberties with objectivity and factual detail for comedic effect or heightened narrative impact. The Kentucky Derby is more setting than subject of the story. It’s Thompson attempting to throw together coverage of the horse race at the last minute for Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine that existed less than a year. So, the story is as much Thompson racing around trying to con his way into some press passes as he and the graphic artist sent by the magazine go on a booze-fueled junket on and around the race track grounds.

The story is laugh-out-loud funny in places, and features Thompson’s irreverent and fast-paced style throughout. It really was something new. Thompson, apparently, thought he’d failed completely when he sent in the story, but the response indicated that – rather – he’d invented something new, something for which there would be a huge market.

It’s definitely worth reading this story, just don’t expect deep insight into the horse racing tradition of Kentucky.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ten Days in a Mad-house by Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a MadHouse: The Original 1887 Edition ( Nellie Bly's Experience on Blackwell's island )Ten Days in a MadHouse: The Original 1887 Edition by Nellie Bly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Free Public Domain Version Here

This late 19th century work of immersion journalism tells the tale of Nellie Bly getting herself put into (the aptly nefarious sounding) Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for ten days (after which time her editor got her released.) Unlike the famous Rosenhan Experiment in 1973, in 1887 Bly had to get herself committed, and had her editor not gotten her released she might have been institutionalized indefinitely. Disturbingly, yet fortunately for Bly, it took no great acting skills to convince the authorities that she was mentally ill, pretending to be poor and having no husband got her at least 90 percent of the way to being institutionalized. Like the Rosenhan Experiments, Bly’s story showed that nobody seems to have any great capacity for determining sanity from insanity, not even the people with advanced degrees and board certifications on the subject.

At first, I wasn’t sure how skewed Bly’s account would be. She does show some bias in practically deifying journalists. She was confident that no psychiatrist would be able to discover her ploy, but she seemed sure that any journalist could out her through the briefest of conversations. So, when she complained the food was “inedible,” I considered that the same has always been said about any institutional food – from military mess halls to college cafeterias, and usually it’s perfectly adequate. That said, one of the asylum staff members did acknowledge the food was pretty horrific. Ultimately, I think the story was probably accurate because, sadly, it rings true. Bly had intended to get herself put in the violent ward, but had second thoughts after hearing and seeing what she did, being concerned that she might be seriously injured by the rough treatment those patients received.

This short book is riveting. If you enjoy nonfiction, this piece is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the WildInto the Wild by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nature is a harsh teacher. That was the last lesson Chris McCandless ever learned. A recent college graduate, McCandless struck out for the Alaskan wilderness with minimal resources, his body was found by a party of moose-hunters several months after he’d begun his Alaskan adventure.

Into the Wild gives us a well-researched explanation for how McCandless died, but it also tells us a great deal about how he lived– and that story is fascinating in its own right. Many thought McCandless must have been crazy, but refusing to acquiesce to the work-a-day world is often incorrectly diagnosed as insanity.

McCandless had an obsessive desire to find out whether he could make it on his own, not just separate from his parent’s wealth but from all the trappings of modern society. McCandless’s most iconic indicator of insanity-by-way-of-thwarting-convention was when he gave away the entirety of his $25,000 savings account and burnt all the money in his wallet. He wanted to know whether he could survive if he was returned to the state of nature from whence mankind came. Sadly, the answer was no.

It would be easy to dismiss McCandless as a dumb kid who got in over his head. Though he certainly was that. On his deathbed, in a bus carcass in the remote Alaskan wilderness, McCandless likely had a revelation that most teenagers pass into adulthood without ever realizing, that he was mortal.

However, McCandless was more than a kid with an underdeveloped sense of his own mortality. He was a kid with the courage to confront a question that most of us just let nag in the back of our minds. That question being,do we have what it takes to live not as a cog in a machine but as a human in the natural world.

I know many are intrigued by this question in part because there are entire TV channels that are practically devoted to survival shows. Yet most people don’t take it beyond sitting on a couch contemplating whether they could survive. Will thinking man (Homo sapiens) be replaced by doing man (Homo effectus)?

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There was a movie based on this book. I didn’t see it, but here is its trailer.