03 November 2010

Book 15 of 2010

Book 15

I finished this using the Kindle app on my iPad. And I figured that I should start showcasing the covers here in case anyone is interested in picking any of the books up for themselves.

15) The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
This is the first book that I've finished in a few months for a number of reasons. Back in August, I made the mistake of starting three books all around the same time. Two is usually my max, and, when school starts up, I get distracted with grading so my own reading falls by the wayside. Factor in that this is not ideal for electronic reading, also, because part of reading to me is knowing how close I am to the end of the book because it entails a sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the non-fiction story of the 1893 World's Fair, I didn't realize that the last fifteen percent or so of the book would be filled with notes and source citations. It felt odd that the story was winding down and yet there was still so much left to finish. I didn't see any progress because a status bar isn't the same as a finger flipping through pages. This led me to lose the motivation to continue reading and felt like a big win for physical books compared to digital ones.

The narrative switches between the monumental task of bringing the World's Fair to Chicago in 1893, focusing mostly on architect Daniel Burnham, and the grisly murders committed by one of America's first serial killers Henry Howard Holmes. Surprisingly, though, the subject matter is very dry. Larson spends too much time on the World's Fair, which, granted, is fascinating, but he does so while simultaneously spending most of the book teasing the account of Holmes, a far more interesting story. The split between the two threads is about 65% to 35% in favor of the fair, when I would have preferred it the other way around. I'm as much of a sucker for the macabre as the next guy, and tidbits of information about architectural demands in a city that doesn't have a solid foundation doesn't entice me nearly as much. The book is called DEVIL in the White City, after all, but Larson decided to emphasize the latter as opposed to the former.

On the plus side, Larson paints an excellent picture of a time that gets short shrift in history classes. It feels like a foreign world that's on the cusp of modernity. Some of the details paint the picture remarkably well, like the detailed letters that were a part of everyday life that people took the time to write which gives an insight as to how folks back then whiled away their days and nights. The short asides about famous individuals who worked on constructing the White City also hammer home the idea of how much of an impact the World Columbian Exposition had on America's cultural landscape.

While it wears out its welcome in the middle portion, Larson recreates a world that helped lay the foundation for America's architectural landscape while sprinkling in a healthy side story about this guy who murdered 27 people. Unfortunately, it's clear that Larson was more interested in the former than the latter, despite the fact that the latter is what grabbed my attention.

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