One of my favorite books is Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. I love the book partly because of its humor, but mostly because I would love to have the funds to travel around the world and see as much as my eyes can hold. I read the school library’s copy so many times that the librarians just let me take it when I liked. So when I saw an audiobook of Matthew Goodman’s nonfiction account Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World in my library’s online collection, I had listen to it. The fact that I would also be driving back from Phoenix, Arizona was pure gravy.
I knew that Nellie Bly, a pioneering reporter for the New York World, had made a trip around the world in less than 80 days. What I didn’t know what that another publication sent its own female writer to try and beat Bly. Elizabeth Bisland (who I have come to love after listening to this book) was dispatched about nine hours after Bly set off, traveling in the opposite direction. While Bly was traveling east from New York, Bisland would travel west. Winter was a bad time to travel on the Atlantic and the South China Sea, so Bisland’s editor and sponsor thought that traveling west might help her make better time. The women’s editors and the owners of their publications spent lavishly to get any advantage for their competitors. Funny enough, though, Bly didn’t know she had a competitor until she hit Singapore.
Each chapter of Eighty Days covers part of Bly and Bisland’s journey, using those parts to discuss a variety of other pertinent topics: misogyny and women’s efforts to becoming journalists in the nineteenth century, the weird fixation people had with Bly and Bisland’s attractiveness, class tensions in the United States, colonialism, Bly’s hatred of the British (exacerbated by a particularly bad batch of staff on her Mediterranean crossing), trains, ship crossings, racism, and so much more. I learned so much from this book and, because it was so well written, I was never bored. Not for a moment.
Because Bly and Bisland were both writers—and because they were working for news publications that were doing their best to get every bit of publicity out of the journey—Goodman has a wealth of material to work from in showing us readers what the two women saw and felt as they raced around the world. As I listened, I loved hearing the parts about Bisland because they frequently featured her lyrical, clear-eyed writing. The narrator’s laconic, soothing voice reading Bisland’s writing and the chapters about her often made the journey seem like a cruise rather than a race. Bisland’s accounts of visiting Japan made me jealous. So much history has happened that, even if I were to get on a plan now, I would never be able to see what she saw. Thankfully, Bisland’s words and Goodman’s research helped me imagine a bit of the exotic foreign locations she and Bly visited.
Eighty Days is a wonderful work of history. It’s beautifully written, extremely well researched, and always interesting. For readers interested in this period in history, women’s history, or the history of travel, I strongly recommend it. And for readers who need something to listen to while they make their own journeys, Eighty Days is probably the best thing you could cue up on your player.