For the past several months, I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s wonderful book, “The Devil in the White City,” which tells the story of the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair. (More properly called the World’s Columbian Exposition.) It’s been a marvelous experience.
Actually, that doesn’t go quite far enough in its praise. Devil is a magical book in almost every way that matters. It’s the sort of thing that (if you’re not careful) can swallow you up and send you into other worlds.
Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that I’ve spent so long reading it (eight months and counting). Larson keeps enchanting me down some of the 19th century’s most scenic, semi-forgotten by-ways. It can take some time to come back.
For example, I’ve learned about the sordid history of the Whitechapel Club, the polite hazing of women architects (with attendant nervous breakdowns) by prim society women, and a failed expedition to retrieve a tribe of Pygmies for public exhibition.
While these side stories only tangentially touch on Larson’s main narrative, the building of a world’s fair, they make the book. They help to flesh out the world and time in which the Exposition took place and to place its events in context.
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