Reporter’s notebook: How to give birth to a book

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Basler is a blogger and reviewer for Broome Arts Mirror. He was a long-time reporter and writer for the Press & Sun-Bulletin. In his retirement he’s helped produce a book. Here are, as he phrased it, “the bloody details”:

A few years back Broome County Historian Gerry Smith and I had what we thought was a great idea.

We planned to do a book together about notables of Broome County’s past. Actually, notables is the wrong term, because we had no intention of writing about persons who made grand contributions to the region’s history.

Our subjects, by contrast, would be the scalawags, the scandalous and the colorful characters of the county’s past. The plan was for Gerry to carve out some time from his work at the Broome County Library while I would steal away some hours from my duties as a reporter with the Press & Sun-Bulletin.

But, as Robert Burns famously said, the plans of mice and men do go astray. In the end, it took us 20 years to get to work, which is less time than it took the Pharaohs to build the pyramids, but more time than it takes an elephant to give birth (22 months by the way).

The result is the 146-page book, On the Seamy Side of the Street, which is available at the Broome County Historical Society on the second floor of the Broome County Public Library, 185 Court St., Binghamton.

The book, complete with pictures, also is on sale at RiverRead Books, 5 Court St., Binghamton, where Gerry and I will be from 3 to 5 p.m. Nov. 17  to discuss the book and sign copies. (That’s what is known as a shameless plug, folks.)

Why did it take 20 years? What can I say: Gerry was busy, and so was I. The book went on the back burner and then off the stove completely. OK, we plead guilty to procrastination.

Then, Gerry retired from the library, and I joined him in retirement in April 2012. I wanted to keep my pen in the game, so to speak, so I began writing reviews and feature stories for the Broome Arts Mirror blog.

That work has been a lot of fun, but I still had some idle time. So, remembering the old adage that “idle hands are the devil’s play thing,” I broached the idea to Gerry of finally getting to work on the book. Gerry gave me a look like “Are you kidding me?” But he went along with the idea, maybe to humor me.

This time, though, we got it done.

The foundation for the work is a series of lectures that Gerry has given throughout the community on notorious persons of Broome County‘s past. I took these and did extensive independent research and interviews to flesh out the chapters. We narrowed the profiles to some 15 people and events. One prime prerequisite was that those profiled had to be deceased so they couldn’t sue.

They include a Binghamton resident who engineering one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century, a street person whose name still survives in the Town of Union, a criminal mastermind who met his demise in Binghamton, the city’s most colorful and controversial mayor and a woman who may, or may not, be the daughter of John Wilkes Booth.

We added in some colorful court cases of years ago, just to show that sensational crimes aren’t a recent development.

I’m a history buff myself. I read a lot of it, with my favorite authors running the gamut from Doris Kearns Goodwin to David Halberstam. So doing the book was a blast for me, although I would never compare myself to these giants of the trade.

In fact, neither Gerry nor I make any claims that our work is any great historical tome, but we think it’s a good read.

And we feel it does fulfill a purpose. History, especially local history, tends to be forgotten when those immediately involved pass from the scene. That’s unfortunate because every community has a past that deserves to be remembered, and, as essayist and philosopher George Santayana put it: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So as the Beatles sang: “Dear Sir or Madam will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look?”

Gerry and I have been making the rounds talking up the book on radio shows and at community gatherings to publicize our work. Oprah has not called, however.

Also, contrary to rumors, I am not selling the book out of my car. But I am perfectly willing to make personal deliveries.

— George Basler

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1 Response to "Reporter’s notebook: How to give birth to a book"

  1. Lee Shepherd

    Absolutely the most fun read I’ve had all year, in the last few years, for that matter! What an odd and intriguing cast of characters Broome County has spawned! And hats off to Gerry and George — it’s very well written and researched. A terrific idea for a holiday gift for the local history buffs in your family.