In A Man’s Tweets….

June 26, 2012

Image of a letter from early 20th century

A love letter, from deep within the archives of the Library of Congress

Lately I’ve been going through collections of letters from the early 20th century, and once again I’m struck by how rich and detailed such letters can be, and how much they reveal about the era in which they were written and about the people who wrote them. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “In a Man’s Letters…his soul lies naked….” This of course begs the question, what will future historians do when they seek to write about our own age, given that no one writes letters anymore, except maybe when sending a thank-you note or condolences?

On first consideration all that seems to await these future Macaulays, Toynbees and Schlesingers is despair and career retraining. But wait: Could it be that future chroniclers may in fact end up with a much richer array of materials to choose from? They’ll of course have personal diaries–mounds of them, given the fad of “journaling.” And they’ll have emails and the stacks of documents yielded by our penchant for suing each other to oblivion. But beyond these, future historians may well have tools that I for one would love to have been able to use for my own books.

Google Earth, for example: Street-level images of cities around the world could provide future writers with an incredible window onto how we all lived our lives, revealing what we wore and drove, what kinds of buildings appeared on our streets, and how we ran our cities. Ditto for Facebook pages and timelines.

But what I’m newly curious about, as the holder of a new Twitter account (@exlarson), is how Tweets and Twitter streams will figure in future historical narratives of our time. Much depends, of course, on how and whether Twitter messages will even be accessible to historians. I certainly hope so. They could be invaluable for providing a sense of immediacy to chronicles of past events, especially in the case of major disasters or geopolitical crises, in the same way that telegrams do for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In doing research for my book, Isaac’s Storm, I wish I’d had access to the Twitter streams of residents of Galveston, Texas, as the great hurricane of September 1900 approached. What a powerful tool for building narrative suspense! Minute buy minute reports from all over the city–until, of course, the storm knocked out power and broadband lines and tore satellite dishes from peoples’ rooftops.

There will always be historians, and the best of them will get as creative as they can in tapping unexpected sources. So, no letters–that’s pretty much a certainty–but it’s possible historians won’t miss them at all.

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Necessary Tension

June 17, 2012

Image on a 1930s vintage postcard, of the Hotel Adlon

Speaking of artifacts....see below

I’ve been asked, often, which phase of the book process I like best: The writing, or the research? I was just now musing on that question, because I have embarked on a new project and once again find myself happily engaged in the hunt for compelling bits of historical detail. That’s not to say that I like this phase any better than the actual writing. In fact, my favorite period begins when I have my first full draft in hand. But I do love the hunt, especially when it involves hunkering down in some dusty archive. Sometimes I feel a bit like a scholarly Indiana Jones, albeit without the whip or revolver. (“Microfilm. Why did it have to be microfilm.” Indy fans, you know the line I’m alluding to.)

It’s hard to explain. Call me boring, but I get this feeling of excitement with every new document from an archive, every trip to the library. Best of all is when I find something I know no one else has found or that has not previously been used to full narrative advantage, as when, in going through the papers of Martha Dodd for my latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, I came across the many love letters from her Russian lover, Boris Winogradov, and the two locks of hair from a previous lover, Carl Sandburg. When such things occur, something inside me starts to vibrate. It’s a bit like the moment when Sydney Greenstreet, playing the “fat man” in the The Maltese Falcon, first gets his hands on the wrapped parcel that may or may not contain the fabled jewel-encrusted falcon. I hasten to add, however, that I’m a lot skinnier.

I found something today. But I’m not going to tell you what it is–at least not now–because it’s never a good thing to talk about work in progress. Doing so is a little like letting steam out of a boiler, and a writer needs all the steam he can raise.


Speaking of Artifacts…

During a recent book signing, a kind reader gave me the 1930s-era postcard (postkarte) of Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, posted above. The hotel was considered the classiest hotel in Berlin, and received prominent visitors from around the world. As such, its bar became a haunt for agents of the Gestapo. I’d love to be able to slip briefly back in time and grab a seat at that bar–ein martini, bitte!–just to get a sense of 1930s Berlin and the mounting tension under Hitler’s rule. Then, however, I’d get the hell out of there. I tend to crack under torture.




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Twitter Redux

June 7, 2012

So, after about two weeks on Twitter I’ve got slightly more than 140 followers. I had to remove one, who seemed to be a female porn star, though I suppose there are worse things than being followed by a female porn star. I’ve found, actually, that Twitter is surprisingly useful. During the recent shootings in Seattle I became a follower of the Seattle Police Department, and received updates on the manhunt that followed, and on subsequent police actions. A little creepy, though, to receive word today via Twitter that the Seattle Police Department “is following Sherman Alexie,” Sherman Alexie being of course the much-respected Seattle writer. I understand that’s just Twitter-speak, but still. Suppose one day Twitter were to alert me to the fact the CIA was “following Erik Larson.” Time to get out of town, I think.

I’m still trying to figure out what makes Twitter work, however. It is definitely diverting, and kind of fun, and at times truly informative (I follow NPR as well), but I do also wonder if I’m simply Tweeting into the abyss. Just in case I’m not, I have made myself a firm rule: No Tweeting after even a single glass of wine. Twitter and booze–therein lies the path to damnation.

And you can Tweet that if you like. Or follow me into the abyss: @exlarson

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