Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented The Supernatural, by Jim Steinmeyer

The truth about the man who believed that anything was possible
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Most British people will know Charles Fort's name through the idiosyncratic magazine Fortean Times, or the Fortean TV series, with leather-clad biker vicar Lionel Fanthorpe. Fort would have been astonished at both. Charles Fort (1874-1932) was a collector of the weird and wonderful. He wrote four books that brought the incongruities and contradictions of the world before the public gaze. They were greeted with delight by some, derision by others. H G Wells wrote to Fort's friend the novelist Theodore Dreiser, "Fort seems to be one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers."

Fort can easily be lampooned as the man who wrote about rains of frogs, but as Jim Steinmeyer emphasises in this intriguing biography, he trod (as "Forteans" tread today) a narrow tightrope between belief and scepticism. He found the certainty of scientists as much a belief system as the credulousness of the religious. Fort is a necessary corrective to those skeptics (they always spell it with a "K") who say with utter certainty, "This or that cannot happen, because science says it can't."

Steinmeyer writes: "Just as it seems healthy to be able to laugh at priests... we need to be able to laugh at scientists." Fort had little time for either. He once wrote: "I incline to the acceptance of many stories of miracles, but think that these miracles would have occurred if this earth had been inhabited by atheists."

Fragments of an unfinished autobiography show the bleakness of Fort's childhood. His father was brutal, and when Fort left home he cut him off financially as well as emotionally. Fort was always poor, living in a succession of scruffy tenement apartments. For much of his adult life, he spent every morning in the New York Public Library or, during the several periods he lived in London, in the Reading Room at the British Museum, scouring books and journals, jotting down whatever caught his eye, particularly awkward anomalies that science preferred to ignore. Every afternoon he would sort his new data, and write. Every evening he and his long-suffering wife would walk to the local picture house to watch a newsreel.

There's no doubt that Fort crossed the line between an enthusiast and an obsessive. His life, as graphically portrayed in this book, was often frustrated and unfulfilled. But the legacy he left makes the world a brighter place: paradoxically, both saner and sillier.