The Great Beanie Baby Bubble – Zac Bissonnette

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The subtitle on the cover of this 2015 Penguin hardback first edition is no longer featured on the current paperback edition as can be seen below. The change of illustration to a bald eagle toy shot with an arrow is, if anything, more disturbing than the staring bear on the original cover.  I miss the line about mass delusion though as it really sums up the book in just eight words.

Although I now own one of the largest specialist teddy bear shops in the UK I first discovered the world of collectable bears right at the end of the Beanie craze and never started collecting them, as I was far more interested in the products of the Steiff company at the time. I do have a small number, but only of penguins, puffins and a pelican to sit on the shelves with the book series of the same names. This book therefore was an instant purchase when it came out, I knew some of the history but really wanted to know what and how it happened. How could a $5 toy sell for $10000 just a few short months after it was released? Talking to my staff members who had worked in the shop for many years before I took over and remembered the queues outside if word got round there was a delivery there was clearly something special, a self perpetuating dream that here was an investment for all as the initial outlay could be so small.

Bissonnette does a remarkable job in following the history from right at the beginning and tells the story of Ty Warner, a man who can genuinely be called a self made billionaire and who is still the sole owner of Ty Inc. and his rise from failed actor to a man worth in excess of $2.4 billion. Warner himself is notoriously difficult to approach and will not give interviews but Bissonnette has managed to talk to a wide range of people ranging from his estranged sister to ex-girlfriends along with people who worked at Ty Inc. and numerous significant collectors. What shines through is a ruthless perfectionist never happy with anything that he doesn’t personally totally approve. All the designs were by Ty and he would go through huge amounts of fabric, eyes, etc. to get the look he wanted. Checking the posture of a cuddly to get it sitting just right and rejecting anything that was not to his high standards. The reason why Beanie Babies took off initially was down to this attention to detail they really were very well made, especially for the price.

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The problems began when collectors started to deal in a secondary market and convinced themselves that what they had was an ever appreciating asset. This has happened before, the most famous example being Tulip Mania in the Netherlands in the 1630’s. Individual bulbs would sell for more than the price of a house at the height of the bubble but the only thing holding them at that price was the bubble itself and when enough people realised this and stopped buying in March 1637 it suddenly collapsed. Much the same happened with Beanies, there was no real reason for the high prices, yes some were limited but there was still a lot of them around and Ty Inc. stoked the fever by creating artificial shortages to boost the price. Stock would be held back from one part of the world creating demand for what was seen as a rare item only for the blockage to be released and the market flooded. They did this several times and this contributed to the crash as people stopped believing in rarities so were not willing to pay the high prices.

A lot of people lost a significant amount of money, especially those who got caught up in the craze just before it all fell apart at the start of the year 2000, some people did make money from the early days and if they got out in time they did OK. The only person to make a lot of money was Ty Warner. He later would plead guilty to tax evasion and be fined $53 million but as he personally made over $1 billion from the business I doubt that bothered him particularly and as Bissonnette points out in the book the day after the judgement there were workmen painting the gates to his $150 million mansion gold.

This is a really good book, not just of interest to bear collectors but for anyone with an interest in boom and bust economics or just human psychology. The story of Ty Warner himself is fascinating and very well written in this account.

How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone

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Rosie Garthwaite’s book sounds like it should be one of those parodies that are all too common nowadays but in fact it is deadly serious and has to be the one example on my bookshelves which legitimately uses the tag “It Could Save Your Life”. Mine is the first edition from 2011 published by Bloomsbury and is still available.

Of course for most people the best way to avoid being killed in a war zone is to make sure you never go to one however the book covers so much more that it becomes a highly entertaining and indeed useful addition to any bookshelf. Split into 15 sections which cover everything from planning, preparing and arriving on your trip through first aid and emergency medicine, keeping fit and surviving kidnapping amongst other things. It is part survival guide and part filled with anecdotes which illustrate the topic being covered. The range of people Rosie has spoken to in compiling the book is huge and covers top war reporters, members of the military, charity workers, a former Somali pirate and, in the case of kidnapping, Terry Waite who was a hostage negotiator in Lebanon for years before being kidnapped and held for hostage himself for almost 5 years.

Some things in the book you hope you will never need, like how to put on a flak jacket correctly, others like some of the tips on keeping safe in a crowd could be useful at any time, as she says

The best advice is to avoid street protests at all costs. Of course, that’s not always possible, sometimes they run into you. And sometimes you might join a small peaceful protest that turns into a riot. You might be in an ambulance waiting to deal with the fallout nearby. You might be involved as a protester when it all goes wrong.

You don’t need to be in a war zone, sometimes the streets of your home city can become surprisingly dangerous.

Anyone who has read books written by war reporters about their lives on the job would enjoy the anecdotes in this volume, Rosie herself works for Al Jazeera and recounts many stories of her journeys for work, mainly in Iraq, and a lot of the other reporters she quotes also work or have worked for that news organisation. There are also a good smattering of BBC, Sky, CNN and various (mainly British) newspaper writers along with people from Médecins Sans Frontières who also tend to be on the front line. It is interesting to read the different opinions of the journalists on how to survive, some like to blend in with the locals others prefer to stand out, there are advantages and disadvantages to both viewpoints. Blend in and you may get closer to the story but risk being mistaken for a spy, stand out and everyone knows who you are so you can get further up the chain of command, but you are also obvious if somebody is looking for a high profile target to attack.

The first aid section is particularly good and at 45 pages also the longest part, it takes you through a basic medical kit to pack if going somewhere where the local medical service may not be the best or if heading into wild country. A lot of this I have packed in the past, put it in a clearly marked container in your pack and make sure other people you are with know it’s there. There is no point carrying sterile medical items if they don’t get used because nobody knew and you can’t tell them for whatever reason at the time. It then has an A to Z of medical issues and what to do until somebody who really knows what they are doing arrives, CPR, recovery positions, slings, tourniquets, treating burns, dislocations, frostbite and sunburn amongst many others. One I really, really hope I don’t ever need is how to deliver a baby but you definitely don’t need to be in a war zone for that one.

I’m not a war correspondent and frankly wouldn’t want their job but I’ve been through armed official and unofficial checkpoints set up on strategic roads in Libya and Lebanon. One of the people who boarded the bus in Lebanon in 1996 with an AK-47 over his shoulder appeared to only be about 14, you just have to keep calm. I’ve also been very aware of being watched to see where I was going in Libya, Syria and Iran amongst other countries, bribed my way into Ceaușescu’s Romania back in 1987 as I didn’t have a visa and also used dollar bills in my passport on several borders where it simply made getting the right paperwork processed faster. I just wish Rosie had written this book 20 years earlier.

The Devil’s Dictionary

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Although now recognised as an American classic The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce was never originally intended to even become a book and certainly not intended to be read like one. It is, as the title implies, a dictionary; but full of alternative definitions, normally humorous, often satirical and sometimes it has to be said just plain strange at least to modern readers. But before looking at the book itself it is a good idea to know something about Bierce himself and how it came to be written and that is not as simple a task as it sounds as implied by the first sentence of the book summary in my copy.

The life of Ambrose Bierce is a tissue of facts embroidered with legend.

Normally at least birth and death dates of a well known journalist and author such as Ambrose Bierce would at least be known but although we know that he was born in 1842 the best that can be done for his death is ‘probably 1914’ when he went to Mexico during the revolution and was never heard of again.

But lets backtrack over what is known. In 1861 he enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry and fought in the American Civil War apparently with distinction and it was thought that he would go to a military academy after the war and make that his career but he was already interested in writing. So in 1866 he apparently ‘tossed a coin to decide whether to stay in the army or become a journalist. Journalism won the toss.’ By this time his army career had brought him to San Francisco, and that is where he started to teach himself what he needed to know; and started writing pieces some of which made it to print. In 1868 he got his first regular journalistic job and in a roundabout way this was to lead to the book I have. The job wasn’t journalism as such in that it didn’t involve factual reporting of news, instead it was a page in the San Francisco News Letter entitled ‘Town Crier’ which was a humorous and satirical view of life in the city and Bierce was set on his path to fame. He would over much of the rest of his life continue to write satire for numerous publications and by 1869 he had included his first multiple definition entry of what would eventually be a book although at the time it was probably just a useful space filler for the Town Crier page.

Over the ensuing thirty plus years Bierce continued his definitions in his various columns in publications not just in America but also in England where he lived for 3½ years in the 1870’s. They became increasingly popular and also much copied with Bierce sometimes entitling them The Devil’s Dictionary or later on The Cynic’s Dictionary until the idea of combining them into a book came to him in 1903. By the time of publication however not only had his idea been stolen but even the title of his column had been used by a competitor to publish their own set of definitions so he was forced to use the title The Cynic’s Word Book when it came out in 1906. Oddly it only included 521 definitions for the letters A to L with an intention to have a second volume covering M to Z later on, however it didn’t sell well enough for this plan to be realised.

And so it stayed as an unfinished work until 1911 when Bierce was working on his collected works and volume 7 was entitled The Devil’s Dictionary, this time covering the entire alphabet and with 1000 definitions, some of which were specially written for the book especially at the end of the alphabet because over all of his columns Bierce had only reached the word shoddy.

Shoddy: n. (vulgus) A term that expresses the status of a large part of our society, and furnishes a weakly page of matter to many of our time-serving dailies.

*Weakly is as written and implies a certain disdain for many of his less talented rivals producing similar columns for other newspapers.

The collected works was also a financial failure but The Devils Dictionary was recognised as probably his finest work and after his death went on to be published as a standalone volume by several companies and establish itself as a major work of American humour.

We then leap forward to 1963 when Ernest Jerome Hopkins, after a long career as a journalist, became Professor Emeritus of Journalism at Arizona State University and after discovering that the title didn’t actually come with any specific work decided to have another look at The Devils Dictionary and some strange gaps in the words chosen. It rapidly became clear that by no means all of the definitions Bierce had written for his various columns had made it into the published book, almost certainly because at the time of compiling he had been living on the Eastern seaboard of America and a lot of the early material was 3000 miles away in California and no copies would have existed in reference libraries where he was. Over the next few years Hopkins unearthed a further 851 definitions left out of the 1911 book and in 1967 the Enlarged Dictionary was published. My copy is the Penguin Classics edition, first issued under this imprint in 1985 although Penguin printed their first edition in 1971 in their main series.

To conclude let’s have a few definitions taken at random from the book, I have literally just opened the book and picked a word for each of these so it should give a flavour of the work as a whole, some are funny, some are sharp and some are odd, I’ll let you decide which are which. In the case of long definitions I have just included the first part, some go on a lot longer than others.

Edible: adj. Good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

 

Bald: adj. Destitute of hair from hereditary or accidental causes – never from age.

 

Riddle: n. Who elects our rulers?

 

Miss: n. A title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market.

 

Insurance: n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.

 

Dice: n. Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly on the wrong one.

 

Fauna: n. A general name for the various beasts infesting any locality exclusive of domestic animals, travelling menageries and Democratic politicians.

 

Road: n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is futile to go.