Les Standiford delivers his signature combination of intellectual assurance, lively voice, and lively narrative in this excellent history of the circus and the three outsized personalities that created its greatest manifestation. After identifying the Big Top's ancient roots and charting its evolving traditions, he delves into the lives, times, and innovations of circus titans James Bailey, P.T. Barnum, and John Ringling. Both the men's commonalities and their differences come vividly alive in Standiford's telling, as do the business, entertainment and media environments in which they operated; though he doesn't shy away from the exploitation of otherness and powerlessness at the heart of circus profits, he deftly captures the reasons the circus was so beloved for so long. Though the book's narrative extends into prior and subsequent eras, the 19th-century material is more than ample, rich and quirky enough to reward So19 readers. Packed with both amusing anecdote and historical insight, Battle for the Big Top is wonderful entertainment as well as a shrewd exploration of some of America's most enduring passions and preoccupations. 

Appearing on June 15, 2021 from Public Affairs Books, Battle for the Big Top is available on, and other booksellers now.