Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book of the Week: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Photo from my scanner.
I am careful about the words that I choose and I have thought about this for a while; If I had to describe this book in one word, I would say, "Masterpiece". I know, strong word and probably an overused one but I really think it applies here. This is a book that is based on the true events of the Chicago Worlds fair and the first known serial killer in the US. The amount of research and the depth of detail that Larson was able to conjure with this book is incredible. As was his intention, the contrast between the fair and the killer creates a great basis for a story and also mirrors the dichotomy of man.

The main focus of the book is the planning, construction and opening of the Worlds Fair otherwise known as The White City. Larson's ability to create an image of what Chicago was like, how people felt, the smells and the sights (the reality not an incomplete and glorified version) is impressive. It was not until I finished the book that I really understood what an undertaking creating this book was. His list of primary sources is amazing in terms of length and also in terms of depth of research.

In the final pages of the book Larson talks about his research, "The more I read about the fair, the more entranced I became. That George Ferris would attempt to build something so big and novel-and that he would succeed on his first try-seems, in this day of liability lawsuits, almost beyond comprehension." This is soon followed by 30 pages of sources... Incredible recreation of events that happened more than 100 years ago.

I was hooked by the planning of the fair and was disturbed by the accounts of the "Devil": a man named H.H. Holmes. By all accounts a captivating individual with an un-remorsefully twisted side. The entertainment value of the book will have you saying, "There is no way that this is true." But the facts are there with little in the way of embellishments. Larson, did recreate scenes that no one could have witnessed but he did not do so blindly.

This was an interesting read because it was entertaining, informative and made me think about what is possible and how we really do not push ourselves as a group like we did in the past. Think huge projects like the great wall and the pyramids. Are people still pushing themselves to achieve these seemingly insurmountable tasks? Could this be the reason why the youth are so ambivalent and wishy washy? Maybe what we need is a good old fashion worlds fair! Something to push our thinking to solve problems we might have thought were not possible to solve. Shifting thought and changing opinions but most importantly instilling some awe. People need that, and I feel like I got it reading this book. I could feel the emotions of seeing something like the original Ferris Wheel for the fist time (it was 246 feet tall! Taller than the tallest skyscraper of the day). Walking into a building that was the largest enclosed space in the world (the largest building enclosed over 40 acres of exhibition space). Experiencing new cultures face to face. It really was a magical thing and I wish I could have been there... but reading this book was as close as I will get without a time machine.

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