I’ve always been a writer, I think because I’ve always been a reader. Once, I pulled out a book between classes in junior high. I didn’t hear the bell ring, remaining completely oblivious to the math lesson that proceeded without me. Far too soon, my teacher’s scolding pulled me back into Algebra. It feels like a bit of a cliché, but I read under the covers with a flashlight many nights. It made me wilt in math class—but it also made me who I am today. They say you are what you eat; I believe writers are what we read.
Every once in awhile, I find a book that layers plot, characters and style so well it elevates my standard for good writing. These books form a small collection of classics I can always rely on when craving a good read. The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore is one of them.
As a kid, I had an almost annual assignment to write an essay about why electricity was the most important invention. This is the adult version. The Last Days of Night takes us into the detailed history of light bulb patent wars, into the recesses of dark human ambition and old-fashioned greed. In this story, invention is not a lonely, brilliant man in a laboratory, it is a war for control of light. The stakes are powering the new American frontier. Paul Cravath, the protagonist, is an ambitious, young lawyer, unaware of his own naiveté, and determined to see his client, Paul Westinghouse, to victory.
Here are some things that make this book shine.
The title grabbed me right away. It doesn’t quite make sense, but instead of making me tune out, it made me curious. There’s a fine line between mysterious and nonsensical. I didn’t know the context of the story, but when I read the description, I could see that this book was not about the light bulb itself. This book was about a time when society was on the brink of getting access to life-changing technology. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the internet, which played a major role in my coming of age.
A Conflict in Full Swing
There’s a reason we have a paradigm of starting stories with a dark and stormy night. Calm spring nights that wrap us in warm breezes have nothing to offer a story. Things do not get interesting until the wind starts to slap us around, and agitated tree branches claw at the sky. The book has a powerful and violent opening, with electricity, the star of this book, showing its immense power over the people of the 1880s. In addition, the conflict between Paul Cravath and Thomas Edison is just about to reach full swing. Moore doesn’t waste time on build up. He throws us right into the moment of truth, a significant confrontation between a young man battling self-doubt and a titan of industry.
Modern Relevance in Historic Context
The book is filled with foreshadowing of our own time. Cravath does not seem to realize the how high the stakes are in his patent war. As he gets drawn further into the undercurrents of the business world, his innocence slips away. He observes, “The very word ‘Edison’ had become a ‘brand,’ no less searing and permanent than those imprinted upon the hides of cattle.”
He also starts to glimpse the celebrity economy. He realizes, “Money, even as old as New York’s, was something. But it was no longer quite enough. The fashionable flexed the real strength that made the American muscle bulge. Fashion was popularity. Popularity was people. And it was to the people’s ever-shifting tastes that even the wealthiest of this young sought to appeal. What’s use in being rich if not a should admires you for it?” Fast forward over a hundred years and we have people who are famous for being famous. And rich for being famous for being famous.
There’s a type of book that I always reject within the first few pages. They focus completely on what people say and do. It ends up feeling like a poor substitution for TV. Dialogue, sets and actions are the ingredients of television. Actors must rely on dialogue, expression and movements to tell the entire story, because we cannot see inside their minds. Without the subtle tilt of the head, the flickering of glances between actors, it falls flat. The written word offers glimpses into the visceral, uncensored thoughts and feelings of the characters. The subconscious gut reactions that these characters would never dream of uttering out loud.
Of Agnes, Moore shares what it is about her that intrigues Paul and pulls him towards her. Paul is not immune to her beauty, but “as pristine as she appeared, her demeanor was not delicate. She was no porcelain doll. She was a distant glacier. Remote, quiet, and yet possessed of great and unknowable activity beneath the surface.” While Agnes possesses a subtle power, her mother “was among the smallest women Paul had ever seen, but fit a double-sized personality into a squat bullet of a frame. She was a rifle shell. Hardened and cooled, packed and loaded, ever ready to explode.”
A Sense of Place
Describing a location is tough. If an author spends too much time on this, it’s easy to fall into the category of books written like TV. In The Last Days of Night, the descriptions of American monolith institutions in their infancy and references to early New York real estate deals offered another layer to the historic landscape. Paul describes his surroundings with the perspective of an outsider: “Manhattan, he felt, had always existed as a bulwark at war with its geography. It rose in a stone and concrete as a dam against the sea, a fortress against the coming snow.”
If you enjoy historical fiction, or want to read a book that will make you a better writer, check out The Last Days of Night.