More of my commentary on books that no one needs (my commentary, not the books, that is).
Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray, by Linda Simon. This little book isn't about the history of electrical inventions, how they were invented, who the inventors were, patent wars, or anything else like that. Instead, it's about the reaction of everyday people to the introduction of this transforming technology. Simon's point is that while the idea of electricity in the house, now so common that we don't think twice about it, was terrifying and slow to catch on, at the same time people were mad about the idea of electric cures. The concept of the human body as powered by something of a divine spark, with electric charges running through and through, was somewhat commonplace. Therefore, electric shocks, baths in electrified water, and items to be worn that carried mild electric charges all seemed like logical ways to cure a variety of illnesses. Yes, that's right, no one wanted electric wiring in the house but were fine with the idea of taking a bath in water with an electric charge in it. I understand that wiring technology at the time had its share of kinks and risks, but GOOD LORD, WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SITTING IN ELECTRIFIED WATER!! Yeah, nothing could go wrong there. Anyway, as befits a lit professor, Simon also covers the topic from the literary angle, discussing examples from period literature that show electricity as a savior or as something to be feared (though more the latter).
The ideas and facts here are interesting in themselves. The book reads, though, somewhat like an expanded dissertation. Don't get me wrong, it's not dull and dry, it's just that the style tends towards the "here is my point, here are facts, facts, facts to back it up, and that is my point." I just wonder if there could have been some way to frame it to give it more of a narrative drive and make the people come to life a little more.
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. This book, on the other hand, has exactly the narrative drive and lively characters that Dark Light lacks. Like Larson's Devil in the White City, it's engrossing, immensely readable, and a page turner. And yet...I came away feeling that it was somehow nothing, a too light look at a moment in history.
Like Devil in the White City, this book tells two parallel stories. One is about Marconi and his attempts to create a system of wireless communication. The other is about Dr. H.H. Crippen and the spectacularly gory murder of his wife (remember, a doctor is involved here--we're talking poison, surgically precise dismemberment, evisceration of organs, and the always helpful aid of a dog in cleaning up blood). The stories link up when Crippen, is cornered at sea by a ship captain who recognizes the murderer and uses Marconi's ship to shore technology to alert Scotland Yard detectives, who race across the Atlantic in order to arrive in time to arrest Crippen as he disembarks in Canada. As both ships travel towards Canada, melodramatic dispatches from the ship captain sensationalize the Crippen case on world newspapers (the captain keeps the news about Crippen from being published in his own ship's newspaper).
So Larson's premise is that Marconi wasn't going anywhere with his wireless technology until the Crippen case made it seem important and useful. Okay, I guess that's fine...of course with WW I only a few years away, my guess is that it was going to catch on anyway. My main complaint, though, is that throughout the whole book the two stories don't have much of a link; I mean, a prologue at the beginning that takes place on the ship with Crippen give you a hint of the importance of the telegraph in his capture, but that's it for about the next 300 pages.
The other big thing that bothers me is that the story behind Marconi's work in wireless technology is really much, much bigger than what Larson shows here. Tesla was working on a big wireless project in the US and filed patents ahead of Marconi, but gets mentioned only twice in this book. It seems like the natural parallel story here is the race between those two, but I guess Larson didn't want to get into that at all. I can't 100% blame him because Tesla is such a big story (and also because there is a cult of weirdness around Tesla that can be really annoying; that's another story for another day, though. I'll say this, though--inventing AC current and dabbling in "death rays," does NOT necessarily make one an alien visiting from another planet). Still, if you know anything about the subject, the absence of Tesla is strongly felt and somewhat odd.
Finally, a minor irritant for me: although the two stories are supposed to be parallel, in actuality, they run a few years apart from each other during the course of the book. That isn't really that important, but it's just one of those things that bug me; if something is supposed to be parallel, I'd like it to be really parallel.
Overall, like I said, there is something decidedly souffle light about this book; it seems like there is much more being made of the link between these two subjects than there really should be and that sense that it is all puffed up leaves you (or at least me) rather unsatisfied. Maybe this discontent is from a nagging feeling that something as important as the story of wireless technology deserves more. Larson is a great storyteller; I wish he could have found a stronger story.
All that aside, I'm not discouraging anyone from reading it; like I said, it's very readable, a great way to pass the time, has interesting characters, some nice detail about turn of the century London, and a somewhat weird, but heartfelt love story (the best part of the book is probably the last paragraph). Read it on a plane, read it on vacation, you won't have any reason to complain. You probably won't be haunted by it either, though.
The Echoing Green, by Joshua Prager. I was a little reluctant to read this at first--I love baseball, but do sometimes get impatient when people get all weepy and wax poetic about baseball in the '40s and '50s and ramble on about the deep meaning of the Brooklyn Dodgers (contrary to what people may say, every game at Ebbets Field was not sold out. I'm sorry to disillusion you, but it's true). However, I read a good review and got a distinct feeling that I would be missing out on something if I didn't read it. And I was right.
This is mostly the story of the revelation that the New York Giants, having fallen lengths behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in the race for the 1951 NL pennant, turned to a system of signal stealing to save their season. As they rose and won and won, Brooklyn began to fall, losing until the teams were tied and the championship finally had to be decided by a three game playoff. With Brooklyn leading in the bottom of the 9th of game 3, Bobby Thomson hit the "shot heard round the world," winning the game for the Giants and sending them to the World Series (which they did lose, by the way). Did Thomson get a signal that helped him recognize Ralph Branca's pitch? Or did he just get the hit fair and square?
This book reminds me a lot of Big Trouble (see http://superpupsays.typepad.com/superpup_says/2006/10/big_trouble_fin.html )
in that the beauty isn't in the main story, but in the tiny details that immerse you in another time and place, and tell you about people's lives in ways that could only come from first-hand accounts. There are plenty of famous people here that you know from baseball history (like Leo Durocher, who my grandmother said used to play baseball with her older brother when they were growing up in western MA), but also many more minor players, like Abraham Chadwick, the Dodger fan who blithely installed the sign-stealing system, not seeing that it might eventually be his team's downfall, Herman Franks, also a Dodger refugee who helped run the system, or Sal Yvars, the talented catcher from Westchester who irritated the wrong people and never really got a shot at the career he probably should have had and in then, undoubtedly bitter, became one of the first to start the whispering about the sign-stealing. Then there are the numbers and numbers of people who were affected either by the success or failure of their team that day--those who fainted in shock, who took to their beds in sorrow, and who jumped with joy (my favorite was the 13 year old girl whose father carelessly promised her a puppy if the Giants won the pennant and then had to deliver). All of these stories are related, so they form photographs of the moments before and after the big event.
And that's what I find fascinating about this, what I always find so thrilling about history--that there are these moments where something happens, and right then, no one knows what the impact will be, how lives will change, what kind of meaning it will have in five years, or fifty years. No one knows, until sometime later, when events have played out and it becomes a piece in a bigger puzzle. Branca and Thomson don't know, at that moment, that that would be the pinnacle of their careers.
The aftermath, their lives after the event are another big part of the story--how they handled success and failure, where their careers went, how they reacted to the public unveiling of the sign-stealing. The two men had wildly different personalities. Confident Branca never seemed to lose his belief in himself and was glad to have possible vindication in the discovery of the sign-stealing. Diffident, self-effacing Thomson had a hard time taking credit for what he did, and the sign-stealing, with the question about whether he took the sign or not, and whether it helped him seeming to justify the self-doubt that plagued him throughout his life. There is a moment at the end of the book where, Thomson, now in his 70s, shows the author some things people have written about him, about how his inability to take credit for doing anything well held him back in his life; for some reason, I found this unutterably sad. Which made it my favorite part, I guess.
Anyway, nothing's perfect--I have a few little complaints. In a brief history of the use of signals, it is said that Paul Revere gave the "one if by land, two if by sea" signals from the Old North Church, but he did not; the church sexton handled the lanterns (I say this as someone who was such a Revolutionary War geek that I had a Paul Revere cake at my ninth birthday party. I am such a loser). In the same passage, Samuel Morse and "Morse Code" are also mentioned, which drove me crazy, of course, because there are those of us who believe that Morse had little to nothing to do with creating the telegraph or the dot-dash letter code (just a little obsession of mine; if you want to watch me lose it really quickly, mention Morse code). Finally, the sentence construction doesn't always work for me; sometimes the style is fine, in other places I would have preferred it to be simpler. I always hesitate to comment on someone else's writing style because, after all, who am I to say anything about anyone? It's not like anyone is breaking down my door to publish my work. Nonetheless, those are my few criticisms and leave it at that.
But these are all minor points. In the end, the book is carried by the details of a world gone by, of a moment and its effects on those big and small, on the promise of a moment and what it may or may not bring to those involved. History is happening all around us, and our lives turn on moments big, or more often than not, small and unnoticed at the time. We don't ever know, for a very long time, then someday we see how it all fits together, and say either, "now I understand" or ask, "what if?"
What if Thomson hadn't gotten the sign? Or did he get it at all? It's still not clear, and may never be. For what it's worth, I tend to believe that even if it was there, Thomson didn't really get anything from it; the numbers seemed to be trending in a way that made it more likely than not that he would get a hit anyway. Then again, what I believe doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, it doesn't; the answer only matters to those who were there, who lived the moment, whose lives were changed. And they will believe now what they want to believe and hope to believe, what will get them through their days best. And that's the way we all get by, isn't it, by finding a way to convince ourselves that there is meaning and hope, even when there may not be. Which is when we need it most.
Good lord, how I ramble on and on and on. Time to shut up and walk the dog.