The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, Simon & Schuster, 2016, ISBN 798 1 4711 5666 3, 368pp
We are lucky in Moruya to have an independent bookseller: [Moruya Books] (9 Church Street). The thing about independent bookshops is that their stock tends to reflect the personality and inclinations of those who own and manage them. Janice Sagar owns this one and long may she prosper.
Bookshops are for browsing and whenever I see an independent store, wherever I am, I go in. I have a rule that I cannot enter a bookshop without buying something and, as you cannot buy one book, I always get at least a pair. My aunt, long since gone, once told me that it is impossible to spend too much money in a bookshop - you can only spend more than you meant to. And Warren Zevon said that when we buy a book, what we are really doing is trying to buy the time to read it.
So as I ambled up Church Street just before Christmas I wandered into Moruya Books with nothing in particular on my mind. I chanced upon “The Last Days of Night” which was described on the cover as “mesmerising, clever and absolutely crackling”. This is a bit of a pun because it’s a fictionalised account of the invention and dissemination of the light bulb (or globe as we Australians would have it). It touches also on the debate in the US at the end of the nineteenth century about the relative merits of direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). It’s the story of rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse and the formation of General Electric.
It’s also the story of a lawyer, Paul Cravath, who worked for Westinghouse. I learn that it’s thanks to Cravath that law firms (and other professional services firms) are structured as they are with pyramids of staff with a partner at the top. We meet Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla: great men of electricity. And, of course, there’s a love interest.
It’s a good holiday read, lots of short chapters each of which starts with a pithy quotation from latter day technological wizards like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Interestingly enough, the author refers to Westinghouse’s shift in strategy for electrification from a “house by house” approach to a network. DC will not travel very far so “house by house” would have been the only way to manage it. AC, on the other hand, can use a distribution network. That shift was reflected a hundred years later as computing shifted from large centralised machines to the highly distributed networks we have today
This is the author’s second book. He published “The Sherlockian” in 2010. That one is also set in the late nineteenth century but this time in London rather than New York. He was also the screenwriter for the Imitation Game which was the movie about Alan Turing adapted from “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges. He is a chap to watch.
In the meantime, why not pick a copy up from Moruya Books; there were a couple of copies when I was there yesterday.