ReReading in Progress: Devil in the White City - An Example of Why I Read Some Books Slowly

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America - Erik Larson

I'm the child of teachers - multiple generations of them, even one from whom we've inherited an amazingly loud handbell that was rung to start the school day. So the concept of paying attention has always interested me, as has the idea of distraction, and what it is that distracts. It's something I've had to work on hard myself, because I've always been easily distracted. Such that I have two modes of how I read something.


When I'm reading on a deadline - for a class, a discussion, whatever - I have to focus on the words and the content, what they mean, the plot and keywords - all the usual stuff. But what I'm very specifically doing is also working on not allowing my brain to get distracted and go off on question-thought-tangents - because that's the way it would prefer to read. (It actually takes a lot of concentration to not let my brain do this.) When I was a student I allowed a little of this to happen - and I'd make notes that would later help me write essays or research. But the problem is that I can read one paragraph, and because of what information the author doesn't give the reader my brain wanders into a long series of questions and (now that google means I don't need to physically go to the library) I then go look for answers. (Or want to go look.) Having a carrel in the library (assigned desk/cubby you get in your last few years) was also a temptation - I could stop what I was working on, go look something up, and on the same shelf find related literature on similar fascinating subjects. This is how I'd end up with a stack of books for the paper I was working on - and another vaguely related stack for fun. I usually had to make myself stop researching and actually write the paper, because otherwise I'd never get around to it.


Is this procrastination? Well, yes. But also no - because by the time you hit graduate school, this is also how you find other topics for research, or have unexpected discoveries of other authors in your field - or combine multiple topics with one theory and perhaps find something new (or not). It's also where you have fun learning. It's somewhat business as usual for those of us who read footnotes and bibliographies. - for fun. (I know, it's like admitting to reading the dictionary. I've done that too! Also, I'm not alone - there are others of us! Clan of the Anonymous Dictionary Readers. Heh.)


So - back to this book. As I reread I'm remembering the parts that immediately sent me off to Google. Because they have the same effect the second read through, and I recognize them instantly.


The first memorable one pops up on p. 22. John Root is marrying Mary Walker, who has tuberculosis:

"...The ceremony was held in the house Root had designed. A friend, the poet Harriet Monroe, waited with the other guests for the bride to appear on the stairway. Monroe's sister, Dora, was the sole bridesmaid. "A long wait frightened us," Harriet Monroe said, "but at last the bride, on her father's arm, appeared like a white ghost at the halfway landing, and slowly, oh so hesitatingly dragging her heavy satin train, stepped down the wide stairway and across the floor to the bay window which was gay with flowers and vines. The effect was weirdly sad." Root's bride was thin and pale and could only whisper her vows. "Her gayety," Harriet Monroe wrote, "seemed like jewels on a skull."


Within six weeks Mary Walker Root was dead. Two years later Root married the bridesmaid, Dora Monroe, and very likely broke her poet-sister's heart. That Harriet Monroe also loved Root seems beyond dispute. She lived nearby and often visited the couple in their Astor Place home. In 1896 she published a biography of Root that would have made an angel blush. Later, in her memoir, A Poet's Life, she described Root's marriage to her sister as being "so completely happy that my own dreams of happiness, confirmed by that example, demanded as fortunate a fulfillment, and could accept nothing less." But Harriet never found its equal and devoted her life instead to poetry, eventually founding Poetry magazine, where she helped launch Ezra Pound toward national prominence."


I immediately want to know all about Harriet Monroe, and I want to judge for myself whether the reader can see that love in her writing. In particular, I want to read her book A Poet's Life. (Non-Monroe related, I also immediately try to keep myself from finding the rhyming of Root and dispute annoying. No idea why that bugs me so much - if I was the editor I'd have asked begged to change it.)


Because I'm not rushing through this reread, I stop and remember - oh right, I did try to find A Poet's Life. It's not easily available. As in I'll have to buy a copy (I'm trying to do that less) or it'll take a few trips to libraries to order it, or read it there. (If you aren't attending some US colleges/universities you can't check out books from their libraries. So just locating one often means you have to consume the book at that location. Each school's policy on this can be different.)


Now I have been known to give in with books that are going to be harder to track down and just buy them. They're usually exactly this sort of book - a now-somewhat-obscure author, and a book that wasn't a huge seller. A own a lot of these books. It's no longer about cost - it's about space. And so this is on my Maybe Eventually Buy list.


And now, some linkage:


Wikipedia: Harriet Monroe


Poetry Foundation bio: Harriet Monroe


Monroe's autobiography: A Poet's Life: Seventy Years in a Changing World (1938)Amazon (also here), Alibris

 It's easier to find the 2011 reprint or used copies of that than older copies from 1938. I did more digging a few years ago and didn't find any prices low enough in the used area, for what was being offered. I think the lowest I found this time was $15, but that's enough to make me wait on it longer. After all, I haven't yet read any other samples of her prose.


Monroe's biography of Root: John Wellborn Root; a study of his life and work (1896)

That's at Internet Archive where you can read it online or download it.


This seems to be a reoccurring problem I have with women's autobiography - the memoirs will be out of print (or be a pricey reprint) but the somewhat popular book she wrote is available free online. But for all I know it could be that some publisher still can make money on Monroe's autobiography (maybe for a class?) while they're not convinced the Root bio would. No idea.


So out of my asking questions about Harriet Monroe I do have her book on John Root, and there are a handful of mentions of her throughout Larson's book. In fact it's greatly due to Larson's description of her that I want to know more, because from the text he also seems to find her story fascinating. But I still look back at that quote and think "I want to read her reminiscing about all of this in her memoir, in her own words." This may partly be a case of having all the more questions because I can't get my hands on a book - but it's also what happens to me repeatedly when I read a book and then add more books to my TBR list. All the books I really enjoy have this side effect, even when I read fiction. I consider it a good thing - and it reminds me of the word I picked up from a couple of years of living in Louisiana: lagniappe. Unexpected and a little bit extra something for you to enjoy. The fact that it's a surprise is key.


Anyway, this is one long compliment to Larson's research - he's constantly giving detailed descriptions of people and groups in this time period, and making them seem very human. Using frequent quotes from letters and memoirs is wonderful for this. It's also just the kind of thing that always makes me wonder "Is there a book just about that person? Hey, can I get a book of those letters the author's just quoted?" And bam, distraction. It's a nice distraction though.


That's the tricky thing about paying attention and distractions - sometimes letting your attention wander into those distractions can be good.