As a welcome change from college, I’m actually ahead of schedule right now: nine days into the summer, I’ve already finished six books. In keeping with this productive streak, my first post on FBS (every web-based project needs a fun initialism) will thus be significantly longer than I imagine they’ll usually be. The books in question are:
- The Name Of The Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
- Billiard Ball by Isaac Asimov
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Name Of The Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear and Dune were my first forays into fiction in a long time. I’m fascinated by the authorial process of worldbuilding, and this fascination was well-served by both Rothfuss and Herbert. Dune in particular throws you straight into the middle of the political and economic machinations of a universe largely unlike our own, and simply expects you to figure out how things work. The Name Of The Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear are slightly more gentle introductions: the narrative itself is written in the voice of a reminiscing protagonist, and so we learn about the world with the characters. Each of these choices definitely works for its book, but I was more taken by that of Dune. The story is unforgiving, exhaustively so, and I often found myself craving respite from the deserts of Arrakis. Needless to say, no such repreieve ever arrived.
Interestingly, while Dune very much feels like an adventure story, the parts that most engrossed me were the slower-moving segments in which characters learned about the politics or geology of their new surroundings. The same was true in The Devil in the White City, which tells the story of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who hunted in Chicago’s streets at the same time. Larson’s style of writing is such that it reads like a breakneck suspense novel, but the book is entirely nonfictional. Rather than the brutal recounts of Holmes’ kills (and they are truly brutal), I looked forward to the portions of the book dwelling on the organization, logistics and construction of the fair itself. The structures – physical or social – that people construct are often the finest testaments to their ingenuity, and the 8-year old version of me who wanted to be an inventor when he grew up is still awestruck by them.
One of the characters in the book (as a side note, it’s interesting that the word that comes to mind when I talk about these historical figures is ‘characters’ instead of ‘people’) that I’ve been thinking about a lot since then was Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect. Perhaps his most enduring claim to fame was the design of Central Park in New York, but his efforts to make the landscape of the fair a centerpiece rather than a backdrop struck a chord with me. There’s something very poetic about that sort of iconoclasm, and I’m disappointed that his work isn’t still around today to experience.
Another, more unexpected thing that I noted about The Devil in the White City is that I learned so much about random pieces of American History than I had expected to. At times, it genuinely felt like every part of today’s American experience in some way has the fair as its progenitor: from the Pledge of Allegiance recited in schools to travelators, to Juicy Fruit Gum to even commemorative stamps. As someone who knows next to nothing about American History but who can’t get enough of random trivia, this was probably the best way to learn about Chicago at that time. Larson’s frequent digressions into how portions of the Chicago skyline developed, or a particular man’s mayoral campaigns, helped capture what it must have been like to live in Chicago at that time.
Speaking of capturing periods of American History (and brilliant segues!), I have a pretty interesting relationship with The Great Gatsby. I first read it for an English Class in high school, and found it positively soporific. Sitting in my final exam and having finished my essay early, however, I decided to crack it open again and free of the shackles of academic obligation, found myself appreciating the beautiful prose and story far more easily. Four years after that fateful afternoon in the poorly-lit exam room, I’m feeling that appreciation again. Enough has been said about this book that I don’t feel like I can add anything particularly meaningful, but rereading it has helped me better frame what I think FBS is all about and what I’m going to look for moving forward this summer. The sense of dreary malaise and inaction that Fitzgerald’s writing drips with is the antithesis of how I want my life to feel. The world is too exciting, too busy, too vibrant, to be bored or obsessive. I want to always beat on, always question myself and the world and never settle for what I already have.
Now, because I have my first day of work tomorrow and it’s easy to end with a quote, here’s my favorite line from The Wise Man’s Fear:
“It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.”
I have a shit ton of questions, and 50 books to attack them with.