did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

9 Responses

  1. It’s funny, but the subtitle got my back up, too, though for a different reason. I didn’t like the word “inspired,” since that’s not the writer’s judgement to make. I’m the reader — I decide whether it’s inspiring. For example, one of my stories has the subtitle “An adventure.” I didn’t call it “A really exciting adventure.”

    Steve Allen, on one of his talk shows, had a guest who started to tell a joke, and before he told it he said, “This is really funny.” Allen smiled and said, “We’ll be the judge of that.”

    • That is a very fair point, Anthony. I guess it passed me right by because I DO think Taylor’s life is inspiring! And I took this usage to mean just that – that Taylor’s life is inspiring, rather than this book (which did turn out to be the case!); but I absolutely see where you’re coming from.

      This is the kind of thing that makes me so glad I share these things and you comment. It’s interesting to see our different reactions.

      • Your comment makes me realize that I was thinking more in terms of fiction (which is my background), and a real story is somewhat different. If you’re writing about a real story (not your own), then saying it’s “inspiring” can just be a statement of fact. However, of course, if you have an inspiring story to tell, then you have to deliver, you have to write the book that the story deserves.

  2. very sad; I was looking forward to your review & then handing down the book; now – we really need a look at those earlier books about his life!

    • I was going to give the book to Carl. But now I don’t think I will. :(

      Anthony, you’re right, and I hadn’t even put that together, of course. There’s a big difference between fiction and non here.

  3. I share your disappointment with this book. The good news is that an authoritative biography of Major Taylor already exists by Andrew Ritchie. Ritchie’s book is well researched and free of the shortcomings described above. Ritchie, who is probably best described as a cycling historian, interviewed Taylor’s daughter and had access to previously unavailable sources. The updated and newly illustrated edition of Ritchie’s book was rated one of the 10 best cycling books of 2012 by Outside magazine:

    http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/media/books/The-10-Best-Books-on-Bicycles-06-Major-Taylor.html

    Ritchie was interviewed about Taylor and the book:

    http://www.podiumcafe.com/2012/8/2/3214709/interview-andrew-ritchie

    I highly recommend Ritchie’s book for anyone interested in Major Taylor’s life and racing career. It is not a page-turner, but presents an objective look at an under-appreciated athlete and his accomplishments in difficult times.

  4. I’m president of the Major Taylor Association, and I consider Ritchie’s biography the definitive one. I also recommend the biography “Major” by Todd Balf, and the children’s book written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James Ransome. Jim Fitzpatrick’s “Major Taylor in Australia” gets into a chapter of Taylor’s racing career that Ritchie wasn’t able to include much about.

  5. […] characters, doesn’t it? Need we be voyeuristic to want to learn about Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor? I say, no. But oh, then there was my reading of Jaycee Dugard’s book, which made me feel […]

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