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In 1929, Robert Ripley was receiving nearly 3,000 letters a day. As Neal Thompson writes in A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe it or Not!” Ripley (Crown Archetype, $26), one fan sent

an envelope with a drawing of a bird in place of an address. It took a magnifying glass to reveal the words “Robert Ripley” repeated thousands of times in the shape of the bird. Others sent letters addressed in Confederate Army code, in Boy Scout semaphore, or simply addressed to “the damnedest liar in the world.”

Even without proper addresses, the post office knew to deliver Ripley’s mail to the New York Athletic Club, where the cartoonist kept a small apartment and avidly played handball. Thompson’s spirited but uneven biography charts Ripley’s rise as a popular phenomenon, a deeply idiosyncratic personality who — through newspapers, radio, film, and, at the very end, television — wedded his restless obsessions to the rise of mass culture. Thompson tries to make the case that Ripley was a pop-culture game changer, and though his argument is never quite persuasive, his portrait of the man behind the franchise is.

Born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1890, Ripley grew up in a volatile and impoverished family. He was profoundly shy, a trait exacerbated by a famished physique, buckteeth, and a stutter. In 1905, when he was fifteen, his father died; seven months later, the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of Santa Rosa. But Ripley was just the sort of talented, appealing boy to be taken on by a kindly mentor — his English teacher let him turn in drawings about assigned readings rather than reports and soon got into the habit of hanging these drawings above the blackboard. At the end of high school, Ripley launched himself onto the tip of the business that was altering newspapers: comics.

Ripley was awkward but enterprising. At eighteen he sold his first comic to Life magazine; at nineteen he moved to San Francisco, where he haunted Chinatown, in part out of fascination with the exotic world he found there, but also, as he later said, because “when I was hungry, they fed me.” He went to work for the Chronicle, most often illustrating high-profile sports contests, and in 1912 he moved to New York City. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” began as a drawing for the New York Globe called “Champs and Chumps,” which debuted in December 1918 and consisted of nine depictions of oddball athletic feats, including one of a man who had walked backward across America.

In 1919, Ripley married a young woman who worked in the Ziegfeld Follies, though the relationship quickly broke down. According to Thompson, the phenomena portrayed in Ripley’s cartoons in these years shifted from sports (a billiards player sinking 23,000 balls) to “a sketch of a man who never shaved, a man who ate glass and nails, a man who crossed the English Channel on a mattress, a man who stood on one leg for twelve hours.” At the end of 1922, Ripley literally took off, sent by the Globe on “Ripley’s Ramble ’Round the World.” He posted months of dispatches from Hawaii, Singapore, China, India, Jerusalem, Italy. Apart from his talent for drawing, Ripley was a regular guy, and his work was filled with the sort of naïve, gawking prejudice that his fans shared: he found Benares, where he saw cremation ghats, fakirs, and corpses floating in the Ganges, more interesting than Paris because more extreme things happened there. He went to Rome but preferred Pompeii because it was “the deadest town I was ever in — and I am not excluding Philadelphia.” When, in 1936, the Boys Club of New York surveyed thousands of boys about who had the best job in America, Ripley topped Henry Ford, James Cagney, and J. Edgar Hoover. “He gets ’round a lot,” said one of the interviewees.

Henry Ford, the subject of Richard Snow’s I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford (Scribner, $30), might have been surprised to find himself less popular than Ripley, since at one time half the cars in America were Fords. (As John Steinbeck wrote in Cannery Row, “two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.”) But Ford shared Ripley’s compulsion to collect. By 1936, he had mostly abandoned the car business in order to devote more time to his “vest-pocket village” in Dearborn, Michigan, which he had rigged with gas lamps, horse-drawn buggies, and a windmill transplanted from Cape Cod. Ford frequently claimed that “history is more or less bunk.” It is “being rewritten every year from a new point of view,” he argued, “so how can anybody claim to know the truth about history?” He preferred to spend his money preserving history’s leavings, including the $10 million worth of steam engines he amassed to illustrate the progress of the machine. Snow writes,

Ford could see any mechanism with an intimate understanding that verged on the uncanny. He could look at a dozen identical carburetors spread out on a workbench and point to the one that wasn’t working properly. He could handle a valve or a rifle breech and know “what the man who made them was thinking.”

To Ford, a collection of steam engines was more illuminating than a collection of history books.

Born three weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, Ford was a controversial and peculiar character, a teetotaling pacifist conservative anti-Semite who believed in reincarnation and women’s suffrage, who ran ads for the Model T “showing female drivers rolling joyfully through the countryside,” a man who in 1915 chartered a steamer to rally the neutral countries of Europe to end World War I. He remembered his McGuffey Readers, which promoted ideas of free enterprise and self-reliance, with affection, but also upended the relationship between business owners and their workers. As one commentator wrote in 1959, “He took the worker out of the class of the ‘wage-earning proletariat’ to which Ricardo and Marx had relegated him and . . . made every worker a potential customer.” Ford’s famous five dollars a day (paid to “any man 22 years old and upwards”) translates to almost twice the federal minimum wage of 2012. And in Ford’s factory, it was paid to black workers and immigrants from Poland, Russia, and the Middle East. He was impossible to photograph — the reporter Barnet Hershey remarked that when “one side of Ford’s face is covered, a benign, gently humorous expression dominates. When the other side is covered, the look is transformed into one of deadly, malevolent calculation.”

Snow, more than Thompson, gets to the meat of a biographer’s task — demonstrating how psychology and circumstances blend to create a life. Snow portrays Ford as softer than the curmudgeon he came to seem after many public battles with his employees, his son, his financiers, and the rivals he openly disdained. At least eight biographies of Ford have been written, including Allan Nevins’s three-volume collaboration with Frank Ernest Hill, published between 1954 and 1963; Snow’s supple and informative effort reminds us that although we’ve bought the automobiles and the assembly line, we continue to wrestle with the issues that concerned their creator: the concentration of wealth, the representation of women, the fate of our immigrants, the threat of war.

The man who actually invented the modern age, at least as baby boomers know it, was, in 1936, not an entrepreneur but a thirty-two-year-old physicist from New York’s Upper West Side with a deep interest in cosmic rays. According to Ray Monk in his new biography, Robert Oppenheimer: a Life Inside the Center (Doubleday, $37.50), J. Robert Oppenheimer was happy in his work for much of his life. But if one side of the cover photo of Oppie’s face is hidden we see sadness, and if the other side is hidden we see profound reserve. The photo was taken in the 1950s — after the detonation of his atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after the hearings that implicated him as a fellow traveler and stripped him of his security clearance — and so both are understandable.

Several biographies of Oppenheimer have been written in the decades since his death (including American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006), so we have to wonder whether another is necessary — but Monk, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton, and who has written about Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, excels at explaining not only the scientific and ethical thought that so fascinated his subject but also the relationships that bedeviled him throughout his life. At the 1945 Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” That, according to Monk, he actually misquoted his source (translating the Sanskrit word for “time” as “death”) perhaps provides an insight into his own take on a life that had, until then, outwardly appeared extraordinarily successful. He once said, “My life as a child did not prepare me in any way for the fact that there are cruel and bitter things.” Friends called him “an intellectual snob, a mental exhibitionist” who could be a “pest”; he once wrote that he needed physics more than he needed friends. In the summer of 1963, he said that “up to now, and even more in the days of my almost infinitely prolonged adolescence, I hardly took any action . . . that did not arouse in me a very great sense of revulsion and of wrong.”

Monk’s chapters on the testing of the bomb and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are remarkably powerful, showing (in part because of an accident at Los Alamos that killed one of the younger scientists) how taken aback the Manhattan Project scientists were at the fruit of their labor. Most had believed, because of prewar collaborations with European physicists, that they were in a race with the Nazis to develop the ultimate weapon. But by May 1945, two months before Trinity, the Nazis had surrendered. Many advocated a test demonstration of the weapon for the Japanese to persuade them to end the war. The Army — and Truman — disagreed, and the scientists learned within weeks, after the gratuitous bombing of Nagasaki, that though they had built the first nuclear weapon, they had no say in its deployment. This lesson was reinforced for Oppenheimer when he met with Truman and pointed out that, since making the bomb was simple enough that it could not be kept secret from the Soviets, more open methods of arms control were necessary. Truman called him a “cry-baby scientist.”

That Oppenheimer later voiced doubts about the development of the hydrogen bomb motivated the very painful examination of his personal life that resulted, in 1954, in the withdrawal of his security clearance, the collapse of his career, and public humiliation. From 1954 until his death, from cancer (he was a heavy smoker), in 1967, Oppenheimer gave talks around the world arguing not only that scientists should share their findings but also that scientists and governments should discuss — and prevent — the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

If the modern era was one in which men became as gods, then Oppenheimer got a taste of one divine attribute — omniscience — just as Ripley did of omnipresence, Ford of omnipotence. What remains to be seen is whether we can manage the gifts that these titans bestowed on us.

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