Author Charles Fort described himself and his interests so: "I am a collector of notes upon subjects that have diversity -- such as deviations from the concentricity in the lunar crater Copernicus, and a sudden appearance of purple Englishmen -- stationary meteor-radiants, and a reported growth of hair on the bald head of a mummy -- and 'Did the girl swallow the octopus?'" He was a skeptic, an explorer from libraries, a challenger of orthodoxy, a possible lunatic, and a reporter of the bizarre. The Complete Books of Charles Fort gives readers a chance to decide which label(s) fit him best, through his four books: The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents.

Charles Fort assembled thousands of notes by poring over newspapers and scientific journals, gathering reports from the 1800s to his present. (His books were written between 1921 and his death in 1932.) Much of what Fort found was the strange: rains of frogs and fish and blood, shapes seen on the faces of the moon or planets, spontaneous human combustion, possible UFOs, bizarre weather, stones falling inside houses. He also noted patterns in these events, and his skepticism in many of their explanations: "In the explanation of coincidence there is much of laziness, and helplessness, and response to an instinctive fear that a scientific dogma will be endangered."

Fort was highly critical of much conventional science -- especially astronomy -- feeling that it ignored or explained away any data that challenged its existing beliefs. (In The Book of the Damned the "damned" refers to any data that conventional scientists refused to explore.) Fort is often at his most impressive when presenting the cases skipped by science, giving examples of their weak justifications and omissions of admitting when they are wrong: "Who could not be a prize marksman, if only his hits be recorded?" He brings up often the unsatisfying (to him) explanations of coincidence, human mischief, mass psychology, confessions that don't cover everything, and mysterious storms not reported by anyone.

Fort's approach was to present the information and to let the readers laugh at him and decide for themselves: "I shall be accused of having assembled lies, yarns, hoaxes, and superstitions. To some degree I think so, myself. To some degree I do not. I offer the data." He isn't gullible and dismisses many hoaxes, but he examines much that is taken for granted.

As for Fort's beliefs, they are often... unique. He argues, among other things, that: some appearances of objects on the ground fell from an area of no gravity which he calls the Super-Sargasso Sea, hovering over earth; the earth doesn't rotate, and stars and planets are far closer than astronomers believe; the stars may be slits in a gigantic dark shell enclosing the universe; and what was considered witchcraft may be superhuman abilities (his "wild talents") from the past appearing in the present. His belief as an Intermediatist comes very close to relativism, where nothing is right or wrong: "Our intermediatist means of expression will be that, with proper exclusions, after the scientific or theological method, anything can be identified with anything else, if all things are only different expressions of an underlying oneness."

But you don't have to agree with Fort's beliefs or conclusions to enjoy The Complete Books of Charles Fort. The man has a mischievous writing style, whether creating clever phrases ("The outrageous is the reasonable, if introduced politely;" "History is a department of human delusion that interests us") or stringing together series of fragment from previous examples. While he often kids about his own ideas ("Not that I mean anything by anything"), he also points out many of the flaws in accepted orthodoxy of his time (and, sometimes, ours). The Complete Books of Charles Fort is a flawed masterpiece that may be a masterpiece because of its flaws.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

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