Tales from my library: The Mighty Atom

8 Oct

I am interested in the effects of background knowledge. Most reading assumes a certain degree of background knowledge; you need to understand most of the concepts and ideas used by an author to follow any piece of writing. The easy availability of the internet has convinced some that there is no need to commit anything to memory since we can always look it up on line. A moment’s reflection shows why this is wrong. Could you read an opinion piece in a magazine like The Atlantic if you had to look up every idea you encountered? The author makes a reasonable assumption that you know certain facts about the world and if you want to read critically you need to have learned a large percentage of these facts.

Sometimes an author uses background knowledge as a way to wink at the select few who can catch an obscure reference that goes over the heads of most other readers. My favorite example of this is in Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay where we are told that Samuel Clayman’s father was a strongman with the stage name the Mighty Molecule.

Some internet sources  report that the Mighty Molecule is a reference to the Golden Age comic book character the Mighty Atom, but this is not the whole the story. The comic book character was undoubtedly based on a real person, a fact I would not have known if my brother had not given me this book as a gift.


Joseph L. Greenstein, lived from 1893 to 1977 and performed as a strong man under the name The Mighty Atom. The diminutive Greenstein was only about five feet four inches in height.

Here is footage of Greenstein performing:

Greenstein led a remarkable life and it is a shame that this biography is now out of print.

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