Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

100 Books While 40: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

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Title: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Author: Erik Larson
Published: 2003

I am not going to summarize how the Chicago’s World Fair came and went, but the details of it are relevant to my impressions of the book. For more information on that Wikipedia has good page on it. Check out pictures of The White City. They are really remarkable. 

There is so much to respond to in this book that chronicles the improbable success of The World’s Fair and the hospitable context it provided for a prolific serial killer. I picked only a small bit to write about.

This election cycle exposes the stark differences between our attitudes about civic pride and our collective ability to achieve greatness today and the attitudes that enabled The Columbia Exposition, The 1893 World Fair. That a small group of people were willing to put their money and effort into a prospect that was utterly ridiculous is completely unthinkable today. This was our bold past.

What if one of the unintended consequences of turning us into consumers is that we cease to value productivity for its own sake? I genuinely believe that it’s a basic human need to be productive or creative. The truest expression of our best selves builds and creates. What if many of us lack the self-discipline to engage in this vital part of ourselves?

One of my friends was telling me of her encounter with a couple of children managing their ninety year old mother’s care. They filmed everything they could while in the hospital and appeared to want to capture some instance of mistreatment that would get them a hefty settlement. They were living out of their mother’s home and eating off her social security checks. They were middle-aged not yet eligible for SSI, lacking in marketable skills due to their life long failure to participate in the workplace, and overweight with health issues.

The part of me that is sensitive to justice felt a twinge of anger at their self-created helplessness. But what came more potently was how sad their wasted potential is. Here are two people who will most likely live and die without a single productive act.

Some would say this is evidence of our entitlements run amok. But I am wondering if it isn’t only that. I am wondering if when elevating our primary role to that of consumer has sapped us culturally of our will to create and be. I am wondering if our social media makes this even more difficult, where everyone can criticize those with the courage to create. I am wondering if Daniel Burnham would today be sending snide tweets rather than building something magical.

One thought on “100 Books While 40: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

  1. What an interesting take away from this book, which took me to a different era which if I had been magically set down in it, would have been pretty much a different planet.

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