Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I've been meaning to read The Devil in the White City for about six years. One of my ex-boyfriends (the first and last time I dated a fellow English major) from (another) college had to read it for a class, and he raved about how good it was. While I didn't generally cotton to his taste in literature, the fact that he was reading non-fiction was remarkable enough to where I figured it had to be good. I was going to borrow it from the library at my university, but then I became an upperclassman and stopped having anything that remotely resembled free time. No pleasure-reading for me. After graduating, I was so burned out that I didn't read anything at all for about two years. Now that I've gotten back on track, though, I've finally been able to read this book.

In a way, I'm glad it took me this long to get to it. I didn't read a lot of literary non-fiction back in the day, so I'm not sure I would have appreciated it as much. It's funny; in college and high school, all I read was canon and almost-canon and canon-critique-of-canon (and so on and so forth; literary criticism on the subject makes meta seem like an extreme sport). All literature, all the time, and now I mostly read non-fiction and YA novels, and not because I've run out of serious literature to read Trufax: I've never read a Jane Austen novel. Blame Elizabeth Barrett Browning: I hated Aurora Leigh with the fire of a thousand suns, and every. single. person. in that class who loved it went on and on about how much it was like Austen novels, which they also adored.

I'll get over it and read one eventually. Maybe.

As for The Devil in the White City, there was a lot to enjoy about it. This sort of surprised me, as I tend to not be a fan of the true crime genre (I tend to encounter enough awful things and people in real life, thanks) or carnivals or books about architecture (Thanks, Ayn Rand), so I didn't think an interwoven tale of a serial killer, a madman, and the Chicago World Fair, Larson does an amazing job keeping all of his plates spinning, as it were: the book involves three major simultaneous narratives and several smaller concurrent narratives, along with a multitude of references to other bits of history playing out at that point of time. He weaves them together in a highly organized and cogent, yet organic manner. His descriptions are vivid without becoming lurid, and the same can be said for his depiction of the personalities involved. It's obvious Larsen went to great lengths to keep his work as historically accurate as possible; people speak only in attributable quotations, and his footnotes are meticulous. All of these contributed to a positive reading experience.

5 out of 5 stars. Yeah, I liked it that much.

1 comment:

  1. I loved that one, too! But then again I'm from around the area, so that may have influenced it a bit for me.

    I'll keep an eye out to not read Aurora Leigh. I've tried reading Jane Austen 2 or 3 times and never made it through one of them. I think the best I've done is about 1/2 of them.

    I've found I've read less literature than my some point I need to change that.