Electrifying the World - and the Reader
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Graham Moore's historical novel, The Last Days of Night
The world before electricity
We take it for granted, walking into any room and flipping a switch. Bright light floods the space. We read, cook, clean, exercise, study, and work, all tasks illuminated by electric light. Ah, progress! Electricity is a standard accoutrement of modern life.
But imagine what is like BEFORE electricity was available. When the streets of every city were dimly lit by gas streetlights. When homes were illuminated with candles, whale oil and kerosene, and occasional gas lighting. At dusk, everything was dulled by the gray of evening.
Before electricity, the world was dim. Do you know how many candles would you have to burn to get the amount of light produced by a 60-watt bulb? ONE HUNDRED! No kidding. One look at your room, and you can see that we would have to have thousands of candles in a year to equal the brightness we have now.
The Last Days of Night
Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, published in 2016, is the stunning story of how America came to be electrified in the last decade of the 18th century. It's a true tale that goes far beyond the billion-dollar-lawsuit over the patents of the lightbulb. The Last Days of Night shows the complexity of bringing electricity to cities, from the kind of current that would work best to the equipment needed, and it involves a cast of characters that have formed part of the American psyche for more than one hundred years.
If that sounds boring, I'm not saying it right because this book is FASCINATING! Even though it discussed the difference between Direct Current (DC) an Alternating Current (AC) and other technical stuff that my English-major brain wasn't familiar with, The Last Days of Night was a page-turner. The characters, the marketing, and the legal issues involved with electrifying America intertwined into a compelling, mostly-true, story.
Did I mention how and why the electric chair was made and the dirty marketing ploy behind it?
The energy sizzles through the pages, showcasing the struggle between giants of industry, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and J. P. Morgan. Throw in the creative and often incomprehensible genius of NikolaTesla, a brilliant but untested young lawyer named Paul Cravath, and a gorgeous opera singer named Agnes Huntington, and you've got a rip-roaring mostly real-life tale of incredible historical import.
The Seattle Times said this:
“Moore has a gift for sure-footed plot development and full-blooded characters, bringing to life Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, and Cravath — all real people, as were several supporting players… The result is a ripping tale of industrial espionage, arson, legal maneuvering and genuine, brilliant, pure science.”
Closer to fact than fiction?
Some people argue that there's not much value to historical fiction because it is, after all, not true.
I would argue the opposite. Reading historical fiction teaches me about eras, events, and personalities I would never choose to read about in a nonfiction book. It offers a general awareness rather than a specific one in a fast-moving format that I enjoy.
Graham Moore is a skilled writer who does meticulous research. He won an Academy-Award for his screenwriting of The Imitation Game and is the bestselling author of The Sherlockian. He sets the bar extremely high for other writers of historical fiction because The Last Days of Night is close to reality.
Moore includes a long author's note detailing exactly what is true and what is false in his portrayal of "The Current Wars." He explains what facts he manipulated to make the story work. In this case, he condensed the events to fit into a timeline that would work with the plot. All the characters are real. The events depicted are true.
For readers like me, who like a historical novel to be closer to fact that fiction, Moore's willingness to outline the manipulations he made impressed me and solidified my feeling of the veracity of the story.
Not a boring book
If you're interested in history, technology, creative genius, marketing, manufacturing, or New York at the turn of the century, this book is for you. (Fair warning. You'll be craving Lobster Newburg from Delmonico's!)
Don't take my word for it. The story is so compelling that two movies have resulted: "The Current Wars" released in 2017, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and "The Last Days of Night," with Eddie Redmayne as lawyer, Paul Cravath, is in development.
Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac's Storm says this:
“InThe Last Days of Night, Graham Moore takes us back to the dawn of light—electric light—into a world of invention and skulduggery, populated by the likes of Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, and the novel’s hero, a young lawyer named Paul Cravath (a name that will resonate with ambitious law students everywhere). It’s part legal thriller, part tour of a magical time—the age of wonder—and once you’ve finished it, you’ll find it hard to return to the world of now.”—Erik Larson, author ofThe Devil in the White City
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