I don’t usually read nonfiction. And by don’t usual, I mean almost never unless it’s for an assignment. Working at a bookstore, I see the wide variety of nonfiction books, and it has challenged me to expand my reading horizons. Erik Larson, in particular, is a wildly popular writer, perhaps because his books present history as an intertwining narrative. After ringing up endless copies of The Devil in the White City, I decided to read it for myself.
Its full title is The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. (That’s a mouthful that you would only find in the nonfiction section.) The book tells the stories of two men. One is Daniel Burnham, the architect who orchestrated the 1893 World’s Fair. The other is H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair to find victims. The premise is just as fascinating and disturbing as it sounds.
Whenever one of my managers recommends this book to customers, she tells them that some people have trouble getting through the early chapters about architecture, but she found them fascinating. I was prepared for a bit of a slog. Instead, I found the political and artistic in-fighting just as engrossing as the fair itself. Larson wisely alternates between chapters about the fair’s complicated beginnings and the personal history of H. H. Holmes. Any time the architectural history feels overwhelming, the reader is offered the very specific story of a charismatic, perplexing psychopath. Not exactly a respite, but certainly a change of pace.
Reading The Devil in the White City was like going to school without the pressure. The World’s Fair was an international event, so countless historical figures were involved in its creation or among its attendees. Its grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park. The first Ferris wheel debuted at the fair. I could go on and on, but that would ruin the historical name-dropping game that Larson loves to play. If the serial killer storyline makes you squeamish, I wouldn’t worry too much. I was able to enjoy the book because Larson focuses on the psychology of Holmes more than the details of his crimes.
The 1893 World’s Fair was the catalyst for incredible beauty and ingenuity, but also incredible evil. Whether you’re interested in American history or human nature, The Devil in the White City is a good read.