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Stories Of The Dead And Famous. And Just The Dead.

by NPR Staff
Sep 19, 2010 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Catherine the Great wasn't really named Catherine, and she hated being called "Great." These and more intriguing facts about the dead are unearthed in John Lloyd and John Michinson's new book, The Book of the Dead.

In their book, the comedy writers highlight the quirky, sweet and strange about 68 people they call "the justly famous and undeservedly obscure."

One chapter tells the story of Ada Lovelace, whose father was the poet Lord Byron. The relationship between her father and mother was so bad that she was banned from Byron's household and her mother refused to let her study any kind of literature. Understandably, she didn't become a great poet or writer, but she did develop into a mathematical genius.

"She wrote the very first computer program," Lloyd says, "which is really an extraordinary thing, when you think that this is in the first half of the 19th century. And if you look on Microsoft stickers, on their logo, their hologram, is a little picture of Ada Lovelace."

Back to Catherine the Great, though. Her real name was Sophie, and, according to Lloyd and Mitchinson, her death had nothing to do with a horse, thank you very much. Her son was apparently responsible for spreading that nasty rumor after her death.

"It's a shame that the one story we remember her for is one that turns out not to be true anyway," Mitchinson says. The authors argue she should be remembered for her strength as a ruler.

"She completely transformed the city of St. Petersburg. She built lots of buildings. But also, she created a new set of laws based on enlightenment principles," they say, ideas which inspired America's Constitution.

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