Monday, November 08, 2004

Devil in the White City

On my parents' last visit here, I convinced my mother to lend me her copy of Devil in the White City, which, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is the new Da Vinci Code (aka the book you see everyone reading on the El), at least here in Chicago. Which makes sense, given that the book is about Chicago: it's about the building the World's Fair here in 1893 and, simultaneously, about a prolific serial killer that operated here during that time as well.

Recently it's occurred to me how little I know about Chicago history and how much there actually is to know--lots of interesting things have gone on here, and I'd heard about some of them (Kennedy's election in 1960, the bootlegging and gangster wars that went on during Prohibition, the meatpacking plants that served as fodder for Upton Sinclair), but this was the first book that really demonstrated to me the effect that Chicago and the Columbian Exposition had on the rest of the world. The Ferris wheel was invented as Chicago's way to "out-Eiffel Eiffel" for his tower at the Paris World's Fair a few years earlier. The architectural style and planning went on to influence what is now the Mall in Washington D.C. Alternating instead of direct current was first proved to work in largescale implementation, which is why that is now the primary method of delivering power to us. Provisions for labor and union concessions set the standard for years to come, a standard that still isn't met in many cases. The number of attendees was staggering, both in terms of sheer numbers and the number of influentials of the time who were all in the same place at the same time, figures such as Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Buffalo Bill, Frank Lloyd Wright (who was actually fired by the architectural firm for which he worked for his work on the fair), Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park), Clarence Darrow, Walt Disney's father, Elias, who would tell his son of the magical white city he labored to produce. The list goes on.

I loved this book and couldn't put it down from the time I started it, which I think was the middle of last week. I spent most of today reading it, and finished it in a marathon six hour session, realizing I couldn't get anything done (and there's lots to be done) until I'd finished the damn thing: I just had to know how it all ended. The book was very well-written, particularly given the sources of information the author had to reconstruct and retell the events as they happened. I'd forgotten what it feels like to be so thoroughly immersed in a book like this, and it reminds me of why I've rarely read since beginning college, and particularly grad school: I just can't afford that kind of time handicap. Better to go back to the Bell Curve, which is infinitely easier to pick up and put back down. I did miss that kind of involvement, though. I can't remember the last time I've been so engaged by a book.

Go read it. Maybe not now, but wait until your winter vacation and then pick it up. It'll be worth the few days you spend reading it, whether or not you're interested in Chicago history.

But now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do.

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