Summer months are the perfect binge-reading time. While many people gravitate to their favorite author’s latest novel, it’s a great time to pick up high-interest nonfiction too. Consider the topics of Monopoly, Beanie Babies and the alphabet as great poolside reading. In The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, New York Times sports reporter Mary Pilon uncovers the true story behind one of the country’s favorite long-lived pastimes. Popular belief says that Monopoly was invented during the Great Depression by an unemployed man from Pennsylvania who made a fortune by selling it to Parker Brothers. In fact, the game’s roots go back to the early 1900s and an unmarried, independent feminist named Lizzie Magie. Politically active and strong in opinion, Magie sought to spread the doctrine of Henry George, a proponent of “land value tax” or “single tax” — the belief that land should be the sole thing taxed, if it had to be owned at all. Magie created The Landlord’s Game in 1904 as a tool to demonstrate the consequences of land grabbing. Pilon follows the evolution of a game that began as “a darling among left-wingers” as it became a fraternity house sensation and then a fascination of wealthy Atlantic City Quakers before being marketed by a Philadelphia businessman and rejected by both Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. Modifications happened all along the way. But that’s far from the end of this story of greed and intellectual property. Reading Pilon’s fascinating history of an equally fascinating game is as entertaining as playing the game itself.
Zac Bissonnette follows the rise and fall of an unusual line of collectibles in The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute. If you lived through the '90s, you likely owned at least one of the floppy PVC bead-filled animals with the heart-shaped TY name tags. Beanie Babies were the brainchild of plush toy salesman turned entrepreneur Ty Warner. Originally retailing for $5, they were designed to be an inexpensive impulse buy that children could amass. A creative perfectionist, Warner obsessed over his line, which he saw as “more than a business.” Despite unorthodox practices like demanding payment in full up front from retailers, the company took off. A manufacturing issue with a popular Beanie lamb named Lovie led to its “retirement,” and the beginning of a strategy that propelled the plush toys as in-demand collectibles worthy of investment. Bissonnette captures the excitement of the launch and rise of the Beanies as they became an unlikely American obsession. Bissonnette tells not only the story of the media-shy Warner, but those of employees, retailers and legions of “investors,” making The Great Beanie Baby Bubble a compulsively interesting read.
Think of Michael Rosen’s Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story as an ABC book for literary-minded grownups who love language. Make no mistake, this is no “A is for apple” primer. Rosen, a poet, children’s book author and host of BBC Radio’s Word of Mouth, presents 26 chapters of anecdotes, history, personal observations and insights into what he refers to as “a stunningly brilliant invention.” In “C is for Ciphers,” he begins a discussion with crossword puzzles before looking at the roots of modern day codes and encryption. “M is for Music and Memory” notes that the ABC song was copyrighted by a Boston music publisher in 1830, and that mnemonics are another musical or chanted way to use letters. “X Marks the Spot” begins with the bold assertion that the letter X isn’t really necessary at all. A three-page preface to each chapter covers the history of the letter and its lowercase, as well as the pronunciation of its name and the letter in context. Rosen’s interest and enthusiasm in his subject matter is infectious; readers can’t help but be moved to share “did-you-know” bits with those around them. Alphabetical is a book to borrow from the library — until you buy your own copy.