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220 × 171 mm
296 pages
136 illustrations, 87 in colour
27 Oct 2014

The Greatest Shows on Earth A History of the Circus Linda Simon

Dazzling, clamorous and exotic, the circus is a theatre of the improbable and impossible. From the days of travelling troupes of acrobats and jugglers to the grand spectacle of the Cirque du Soleil, the circus has exerted an indelible fascination. Of all our myths of reinvention, rebirth, second acts and new identities, running away to join the circus has a special allure. In this book Linda Simon asks why we long to soar on the flying trapeze; to ride bareback on a spangled horse; to parade through city streets in costumes of glitter and gold. Why have artists and writers repeatedly or obsessively taken the circus as their subject? What does the circus offer us that we think we so desperately need? 

The Greatest Shows on Earth takes us from eighteenth-century hippodromes in Britain to intimate one-ring circuses in nineteenth-century Paris, where Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso became enchanted by aerialists and clowns. We meet P. T. Barnum, James Bailey and the enterprising Ringling Brothers, who created the golden age of American circuses. We explore contemporary transformations of the circus, from the whimsical Circus Oz in Australia to New York City’s Big Apple Circus. Circus people are central to the story: trick riders and tightrope walkers, sword swallowers and animal trainers, contortionists and clowns – these are the men and women who create the sensational, raucous, titillating and incomparable world of the circus.

Beautifully illustrated, rich in historical detail and full of colourful anecdotes, Linda Simon’s vibrant history is as enchanting as a night at the big-top itself.

Here from the Tony Basilio radio show is an interview with Linda Simon about The Greatest Shows on Earth. Please wait for the mp3 file to load, or to go to the website click here.

‘engrossing . . . It takes a book such as Simon’s, vividly written and richly illustrated to give us some inkling of what Emily Dickinson felt when she wrote “Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. A Circus passed the house – still I feel the red in my mind.”’ – John Carey, Sunday Times

‘a jewel of a publication . . . Simon writes about the various phases of circus history in a dense, rich prose – enlivened by some superb chapter-headings, quotes and anecdotes. Here is an eclectic and well-chosen compilation of responses to, and illustrations of, the circus . . . I enjoyed this book greatly. Linda Simon is clever, and a thorough researcher . . . she writes with a sharp eye for detail and page-turning momentum.’ – The Spectator

‘handsomely presented on superior paper and with many illustrations, over half of them in colour . . . [the book] ranges widely in time and place, and evokes its subject with great immediacy . . . A whirl of chapters on trick-riders, trapeze artists, animals, prodigies and so forth, sweeps the reader into the atmosphere of the circus . . . Simon enlivens history with roughly equal helpings of anecdote and philosophical enquiry.’ – TLS

‘Like anyone with a hankering for fairs, puppets and music hall, I adored the world of the circus — and as [this] beautifully illustrated and superbly researched volume makes plain, it is a form of entertainment that has accumulated distinguished devotees.’ – Daily Mail

‘A whimsical and enlightening history of the circus . . . Simon does a fine job of exploring the subtexts of the circus. In addition to what is promised – “a living cabinet of wonders, a theatre of the improbable and even the impossible, an escape from reality” – the circus has always appealed to our baser instincts . . . Above all, Simon shows how men and women over the centuries have been obsessed with controlling their bodies and, by extension, their minds – and how the spotlight and the “irresistible burst of applause” were often fatally addictive.’ – Macleans Magazine

‘In the age of CGI and editing, the “fleeting moment of magical spectacle” that the circus represents holds a grip on our popular imagination about as firm as an aerialist’s on the trapeze. It’s an obsession that is intriguingly documented in Linda Simon’s The Greatest Show on Earth . . . its great strength is providing both a strong practical narrative and a considerably interwoven portrait of the related thoughts of artists and writers (and later filmmakers) from the earliest stages of the circus’ existence, given, in many cases, the very specific inspiration that the circus provided them.’ – The Daily Beast

‘Just as tragedies demonstrate transcendent achievements in the face of death, so do circus performers demonstrate what skilled humans can achieve often against dangerous obstacles.  Similarly, as comedies demonstrate human frailties in the face of life-affirming conclusions, circus clowns demonstrate how people stumble even as they persevere.  The history of what we call circus goes back to ancient times.  Simon has achieved a great deal in this book.  Often relating circuses to the ways they have been represented in art, she offers detailed descriptions of the basic elements of circus acts . . . this beautifully produced book – with its excellent color reproductions, extensive notes, and useful bibliography – is a must for those interested in popular culture. Essential.’ – Choice

‘Throughout, Simon demonstrates her understanding that circuses are mystical and complex, full of dazzle and escapism, both social and sexual . . . Simon brings a learned hand to this bright history of the circus, which emblazons as it preserves the magic.’ – Kirkus Reviews

‘Our fascination with the fantastic – people and animals doing things most of us simply cannot do – is apparently as old as humankind. Simon offers ancient historical evidence, some from thousands of years before the Common Era, of incredible performers, from dancing Egyptian girls to ceramic Mexican acrobats to depictions of ancient Japanese tumblers. Through an engaging narrative and impressive photos, posters, and famous paintings by Lautrec, Degas, and others, Simon conjures the long and captivating history of the circus . . . A sweeping look at the ancient fascination with spectacle and how it has evolved over time.’ – Booklist

‘Circus embraced the railway and was coming to – and shortly departing from – a ‘town near you’ soon (o“ffering a literal form of escapism). But what Simon’s study makes clear is that its visit was as much an invasion of paper as of performers. The book is illustrated with colourful promotional material that wallpapered the destinations on a circus’ itinerary. Not everyone could attend the circus, but all felt its presence.’ – History Today

‘There are many photographs in this book, but it is the well researched and easy text and many anecdotes that bring the circus to life for the reader . . . This excellent book show us a glimpse into a part of social history that is often forgotten and reminds us of the magic the circus brought.’ – Yorkshire Gazette and Herald

‘To paraphrase the words of the great poet EE Cummings, dang everything but the circus. Linda Simon evokes the greatest show on earth in all its history and wonder. So run away from home, crawl under the tent, and enjoy this book.’ – Wavy Gravy, clown and activist

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Linda Simon is Professor Emerita of English at Skidmore College, New York. Her previous publications include Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray (2004) and Coco Chanel (2011), a title in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series.