Here are condensed versions of this week's book reviews:
"Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records" by Amanda Petrusich; Scribner (260 pages, $25)
While documenting the culture and its characters, Petrusich examines the impulses and often sanity-testing ways in which chasing elusive platters can lead men toward pettiness, hoarding and isolation, as well as her own role as a female in a mostly male realm.
To the chosen few, a pristine 78 on the right label is a nugget of history that might contain creations as transcendent as titles made famous by record crate diggers like the late artist Harry Smith. His 1952 collection, "Anthology of American Folk Music," is considered by many to be the first great curatorial gathering of the nation's early American folk and blues music. Smith made connections between white and black music when the public's tastes were still mostly segregated. Petrusich works to discover what happened to Smith's 13,000-piece collection after his passing. The answer is predictably depressing.
Now, the Internet has unlocked the attic to a new generation searching for 78s not in dumpsters but in avenues such as eBay. Petrusich follows this evolution and provides a counterpoint by profiling collectors searching other continents for exciting and otherwise lost recordings.
Quoting Jonathan Ward, whose library of African records is featured on his Grammy-nominated compilation "Opika Pende," Petrusich conveys the 78 hunter's view that "certain visions may have dictated certain narratives about American music, especially when it comes to blues."
"There's music all over the world that's equally rare," says Ward, while acknowledging that blues records nonetheless represent "a very interesting piece of Americana." However, he adds, "That same thing exists in many other places. It's just, does it captivate white dudes?"
It's a question to ask not only of the "blues mafia" but also the accepted narrative that places a handful of black men at the center of the story to the diminishment of women, immigrants and the diaspora of disappeared musicians whose work hides in sheds and riverbeds awaiting resurrection.
Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times
"Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies" by Lawrence Goldstone; Ballantine Books (428 pages, $28).
The flight was not even really a flight, just a short hop some 120 feet. But in successfully flying a controlled, powered aircraft on the beach of Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright did what many had tried and failed to do before.
Their accomplishment, a combination of American ingenuity, pluck and perseverance, is familiar fodder for high school reports. The story that Lawrence Goldstone tells in "Birdmen," his enthralling new account of flying's wild early years, is a much darker version. The brothers' ingenuity is not in question, but they were also petty, vindictive, litigious businessmen who, Goldstone suggests, impeded the progress of American aviation.
At stake was a central issue: Was powered flight a concept open to all who could master it, or a patented process that could be owned? The Wrights insisted it was the latter, and moved to patent flying itself, and their decisive innovation of lateral control, a twisting of the wings that provided stability. The patent claim was breathtaking in its sweep. Yet, as Goldstone shows, flying could not be contained.
The joyless Wrights eschewed showmanship. They may have a place in the history books, but Goldstone shows how innovation curdled into obsession, keeping the brothers earthbound when they could have soared to even greater heights.
Matthew Price, Newsday
"Green: The History of a Color" by Michel Pastoureau; Princeton University Press (240 pages, $35)
In his latest book, Michel Pastoureau clocks trends in the uses of green in centuries, rather than the weeks or months of today's fashion watchers. This is the natural outcome of chronicling a color from prehistory to present. The generalizations that result, though, are often fairly meaningless.
I think the way to take in this book might be with a glass of wine red, perhaps and the expectations you might bring to the pages of Vogue. In other words, flip the pages leisurely, soak up the luscious images and, if you're lucky, pick up bits of information along the way.