Friday, January 10, 2020

1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelernter

From the back cover: "Yesterday’s World of Tomorrow. In a narrow corridor of time between the Great Depression and the most destructive war in history, a World’s Fair was held in the city of New York. It was an event that transformed an entire generation with its vision of things to come. Millions of people came from every corner of the globe to gaze in awe at the Trylon and Perisphere, and to experience for an afternoon a thrilling yet humane utopia in which every citizen lived “the good life” that art, science, technology, and moral fervor had created. In 1939, David Gelernter gives us an intensely evocative picture of the World's Fair — and of a fleeting era of innocent expectation when the world looked forward in wonder rather than backward with regret."

I'm left with mixed feelings about this one, but I think I liked it more than not. I love reading books that make me stop and Google every few pages and this was definitely one of those. I also love reading about past World's Fairs---all the details, all the emotions, all the innovations---that's where I got a little annoyed with this one. Gelernter used a fictional love story to help describe the events and I found it took a more prominent place than I would have liked it to, with even whole chapters being devoted to the story and not to the Fair.

One of my first "Google surprises" was that World's Fairs are still going on all over the world! (Don't laugh...I'm a hermit.) I had no idea but assumed that technology moved too fast for a Fair to be relevant. But I was wrong! I'd sure love to go to one. I think they're fascinating!

The author spent a lot of time trying to convince the reader that the 1930s were just as sophisticated as today. Is there any doubt? I'd say more so---and classier, too. Take his points about the code of dress and the "why bother" mentality. People who dress nicely do it to be respectful of others around them, just as much for themselves. This mentality has not left our society---it's just not promoted as important or moral anymore.

An interesting dichotomy was the things they were naive to compared to the things we assume they were naive to. For instance, these times weren't necessarily as innocent or "moral" as we might assume. There were lots of instances of nude art and even some soft porn featured at the fair. Yikes! On the other hand, the fair's SCIENCE DIRECTOR boasts, "the actual control of the weather for an entire town will by no means be impossible for air-conditioning engineers of the future." How someone not only believed that was possible or feasible but also didn't see the potential catastrophe that could create is shocking to me. However, these are also the parents of our current Baby Boomer "conspiracy theorists". Ha!

This was definitely a different time militarily. They had no such phrase to describe a nation as a, "super power", and if there would have been one, America wouldn't have been it. At that time, the French army was said to be the best in the world. Do we even hear about a French army now? Britain was possibly more powerful than us...but they sure seem awfully pacifist these days.

I really didn't too much enjoy the fictional love story and thought the story of the Fair could have been told just fine without it. I believe the author did it this way to help give a perspective of the feelings and reactions of the fairgoers, but at many points the dialogue became weirdly philosophical and didn't seem applicable.

Overall, it was a "fair"ly good read...but I think I'll be looking for something else on this particular Fair, as well.