Steven Johnson picked six topics we take for granted in our modern-day lives and explores how these topics became so important. For instance, he tells the story of standardized time by first telling the story of sea trade and railroads and multitudinous time zones until someone had the idea of synchronizing our clocks. Which then led to even greater discoveries and implementations.
I’m a big James Burke fan. My favorite episode of Connections was the one in which he explained how Jacquard weaving patterns led to Hollerith computer cards which led to modern computer programming. I’m also a history nerd and love multi-disciplinary works like Johnson’s.
The topics are relevant and interesting. Johnson’s writing style makes some the complexities easy to understand, and offers up intriguing anecdotes about how things like Clean came to be such a big deal.
One of the best things in this book is Johnson’s reminders that innovations don’t happen on their own. Creativity builds on the work of others, often over many years of trial and error
The Six Topics are:
The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.
Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery’s powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee. Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified. Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince…the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini.
Thank you to the publisher for sending a review copy
#ReadingIsResistance to the rigid rules of defining the inexplicable.
We all want answers to what our lives mean. We want to know where the dead go when they leave us. We have trouble letting go, and most of all, we just want things to make sense.
In The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher writes about the rivalry between science, seances, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a woman named Mina.
Spiritualism after World War I is a fascinating pocket of history. It’s about the search for meaning after a meaningless war in a time of great chaos. How do people make sense of the enormous changes happening around them?
Jaher’s overly-detailed, too long book does an adequate job of telling the story of the search for meaning and Truth. It’s a great discussion about the need for contact with loved ones who are gone from the lives of many, including Houdini and Doyle, far too early.
It becomes political as Houdini sets out to prove once and for all that all those who hold seances are frauds. In this book, he isn’t really a nice man. His belligerence about proving Mina Crandon wrong, while at the same time longing to talk to his dearly departed mother, is off-putting in Jaher’s hands.
More sympathetic, to a point, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lost his teenaged son to the trenches of war and grieves deeply. Doyle becomes convinced there should be a way for all grieving for those the war took to communicate with them in Summerland.
Enter Scientific America and its prize money offered to the person who could prove to a committee of judges they were genuine in their abilities. For over a year, the search covered the US and Britain. Each time, the psychic was uncovered as fraudulent.
Then Mina (aka Margery) Crandon, with the right social credentials, comes to the attention of all parties involved. Of course, nothing could be proven and the prize money was never awarded.
The story of Mina’s seances is one of strong personalities determined to prove themselves RIGHT at all costs. Houdini insists she’s a fraud but only talks about how Mina could do her “tricks,” including manifesting her frolicking dead brother, Walter, and ectoplasm. Doyle is intent on proving that communication with dead is not only possible but can become commonplace.
The other judges on the panel get caught between these two strong personalities and Mina Crandon’s gentle, witty personality. They also get swept up in the grandeur of the Crandon’s upper crust credentials. It must have been an emotional whipsaw for these poor judges who are portrayed as hardly up to the task.
There is so much detail it’s easy to get lost. Yet, the more salacious stuff is hidden behind innuendo. There are many portrayals of the searches Mina had to go through before every seance, including examining her vagina to make sure she wasn’t hiding any number of icky things in there. I was creeped out by this. The poor woman. I kept thinking, “You wanna put your hands where?” Alarming.
There were slight hints of sexual impropriety between Mina and some of the judges, including Houdini. But only hints. I suppose, given the times, slight hints were all the original sources would provide.
I’m skittish of the paranormal, so am at a disadvantage in understanding the fascination with heavy tables rising under their own power, ectoplasmic projections, and all the other attendant activities which seem to attend seances. I’m not at all convinced we should be messing with paranormal things we can’t possibly understand. Things just seem to go wrong all the time.
After all the buildup, the logical conclusion of no conclusion was an anti-climax. Of course there was no way to ever prove Mina Crandon’s veracity. Houdini died from the infamous punches to his stomach shortly after the Scientific American contest was called to a draw and officially disbanded. Mina Crandon lived on, complimenting Houdini gently.
It is a fascinating story but sadly, Jaher’s skills were not up to the task of making it a fascinating read. To give him credit, it’s a complicated story, one I’m sure he grappled with in trying to bring it into shape.