The geek makes good.
November 10, 2007
“The local public library is where I first discovered romance, in high school. I was such a geek that studying together passed for making out.”
–Author Erik Larson
I bet he wishes I hadn’t heard him say that. 🙂
If you’re in the Seattle area on Thursday, November 15, please come to a reading and booksigning by noted author (and former geek) Erik Larson. He’ll be appearing at the Eagle Harbor Book Company at 7:30p.m.
I always learn something startling from Erik’s books, like the fact that John Philip Sousa fit an entire band into one car of the Ferris wheel at the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair, or that the original trade name for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was “Slave in a Box.” His latest, Thunderstruck, is an interwoven narrative of the notorious Dr. Hawley Crippen, who committed the ghastliest of murders, and the laying of the transatlantic cable.
Big historic events are Larson’s specialty, and his passion. Although New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast are still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the storm of September 8, 1900 remains the deadliest on record in this country. Larson writes compellingly of the disaster in Isaac’s Storm, detailing the terrors to which Galveston, Texas, awakened to on that long-ago September morning, from the point of view of Isaac Cline, chief weatherman for Texas and the one individual who could have saved Galveston. At the time, Galveston was one of the most important port cities in the nation, a beehive of commerce, prosperity and confidence. After the storm slammed the city, leaving the landscape decimated and 8,000 dead, Galveston never regained its stature.
On the heels of the international bestseller, Erik Larson wrote THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, which was nominated for a National Book Award. He is a former features writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and other publications. In addition to his association with Purple Amoeba, the author is also an experienced teacher, having taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and the University of Oregon.
In an interview on the Random House web site, Larson explains that he first came across the subject of The Devil in the White City, the killer Dr. H. H. Holmes, while researching Isaac’s Storm. “I found his story immediately compelling, but only when I began reading about the glories of the World’s Columbian Exposition did the story take on the larger resonance that I look for in a book. Taken together, the stories of how Daniel Burnham built the fair and how Dr. Holmes used it for murder formed an entirety that was far greater than the story of either man alone would have been. I found it extraordinary that during this period of nearly miraculous creativity there should also exist a serial killer of such appetite and industry. The juxtaposition of the architect and the murderer seemed to open a window on the forces shaping the American soul at the dawn of the 20th century. The fair drew so many of history’s brightest lights, from Buffalo Bill to Susan B. Anthony, that doing my research was like crashing a very classy Gilded Age party….I found it so marvelously strange that both these men should be operating at the same time in history, within blocks of each other, both creating powerful legacies, one of brilliance and energy, the other of sorrow and darkness. What better metaphor for the forces that would shape the 20th century into a time of monumental technical achievement and unfathomable evil?”
The author always works alone, eschewing a staff of researchers, assistants and support. “I need first-hand contact with my sources—for example, I found it infinitely valuable to be able to touch the original postcards on which Patrick Prendergast revealed his insane delusion, one that would bring the fair to such a tragic end.” Larson believes every book is a detective story, and his job is to reveal and report the details. One high point for the author was “coming across the actual death decree for Holmes in the files of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, complete with its ribbon and gold seal. Another occurred when I paid a visit to Holy Cross Cemetery outside Philadelphia and saw the original entry for Holmes’s plot in the cemetery’s death registry. As I stepped onto the grass in the vicinity of his unmarked grave, under dark clouds, a thunder-clap boomed through the sky. It was a little too spooky, actually, given the Holmes curse. I left soon afterward.”
The public library has long been a part of the author’s life, beginning with the fish reading club of his boyhood. “Every summer in my hometown of Freeport, Long Island, some good soul in the library would go to great lengths to cover one wall of the library with a blue sea of paper and fake seaweed and so forth, and we’d each be assigned a fish with our name on it, and our fish would ‘swim’ through the ocean in accordance with how many books we read each week. I was always very jealous of the kids, typically girls, whose books not only made it across the sea but did so even before the summer was half over.”
As a working writer, Larson is a dedicated library patron. “I love libraries for the sense of unfathomable knowledge stored in those banks of books–I always imagine that somewhere in the dustier books, typically in Dewey’s 900-level books, there are great stories yet to tell. Sometimes when I’m looking for my next book idea I’ll wander the 900 stacks at Suzallo and just pick out books at random and thumb through them, just to see what jumps out. Never very productive, but always very interesting.
“Books also are very real. Solid. I like them for the same reason I like stone. In a relativist world, the tactile power of both can help one find one’s bearings.
“And by the way, my dog loves old books too. Something about the glue in the bindings, I think–so whenever I take an old book from the library I have to be careful always to keep it up high whenever I’m out of the room. Otherwise, yes, my dog will eat the cover, as in fact occurred with a 19th-century text from the Suzallo library during the research for my next book. Happily, I found a replacement on ABEbooks.com.”
To Erik Larson, the best thing about the library is “the ‘serendipity effect,’ though it applies only to open-stack libraries. You go into the stacks looking for one particular book and when you find it, you discover–thanks to the magic of Melville Dewey (who, regrettably, was a rabid anti-semite)–you discover that it lives in a kind of diaspora of other books that touch on your subject or your era-of-interest in unexpected and compelling ways. It’s something the Internet, with its too-focussed search protocols, likely will never match. I always say that every day spent in a library is like a little Ross McDonald detective story, where you go to the library hunting for something in particular and end up finding much more than you anticipated.
“I also like the smell exhausted by old books that haven’t been opened in a long time. It’s the scent of adventure!”