“It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules.” – From Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

Lately, my 9-year-old’s favorite phrase is “Did you know _______ ?”

It always comes with a fact or two she’s gleaned from books or educational TV shows. Recently, they’ve included the fact that Neil Armstrong used to mow a cemetery and a detailed treatise on the minutiae of REM sleep. Which bits of reality will speak to her feels like a dice roll, a turn of the roulette wheel.

Sometimes, I will know enough to augment, slightly correct, or double-check what she’s said. But for the most part, she’s right on. Facts are important to her, and she celebrates them often.

Did you know I was not that way at all as a kid? Oh, sure, I knew a lot about dinosaurs and whales, but my universal, consistent curiosity about the real and tangible was lacking. Reading outside of academic confines was for made-up worlds. “Did you know ________?” was for Star Wars, Redwall, and DC Comics; not for facts, but for lore. I read a lot through my K-12 years, but I read almost exclusively fiction in my free time.

Erik Larson, a writer and historian who focuses on history’s devils, beasts, and storms — and a host of other subjects — changed my tune. It started with The Devil In The White City, which I picked up just after or toward the end of college. Why? Couldn’t tell you. But I think it was the amount of larger-than-life stories it claimed to hold. It is, famously, a dual narrative, focusing on the construction and spectacle of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who had procured a “hotel” nearby, the site of many of his murders.

I devoured it. It wasn’t just the grand architecture of the fair or the sheer number of “firsts” that were born there. (Did you know that list includes the first Ferris Wheel? How about the first moving sidewalk? Cracker Jack? Shredded Wheat?) It also wasn’t just the page-turning horror of a man so unbelievably depraved that he fancied himself an actual demon in disguise.

It was the connection between the two.

Did you know that historic events don’t exist in an isolated state and frequently intersect like city streets? Of course you do. But to comprehend their interconnectedness and run my hands over the metaphorical blueprints of something so acutely influential in American culture and the darkness that shadowed it was something else entirely.

“The important thing isn’t can you read music. It’s can you hear it,” Niels Bohr tells J. Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer biopic.

Bohr was referring to advanced mathematics and physics, of course, not history, but the sentiment is the same. With “The Devil In The White City,” facts resonated with a poetic ambience instead of dry, dull tenor. I was hooked, a newborn nonfiction fan.

Three months before I left the Mail Tribune and started at JCLS, I gushed about The Devil In The White City on the other side of the camera during National Library Week 2021.

JCLS had invited several local reporters to read books for a series of short videos. All other reporters went with children’s books. I went with, well, the book about the killer who thought he was the devil.

“This is probably the book that got me into narrative nonfiction,” Past Life Me says. (But you knew that already.)

Since then, other Larson books have contained similar magic. The way he describes the formation of the 1900 Galveston hurricane in Isaac’s Storm reminds me of a dance number you’d see in Disney’s Fantasia.

“Something powerful and ultimately deadly occurred within these clouds,” a passage reads. “As the water rose and cooled and condensed, it also released heat. In the sky over Africa in August 1900, trillions upon trillions of water molecules began breathing tiny fires.”

In Dead Wake, which recounts the infamous 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat, the U-boats are described as having personalities based on who commanded them. Oh, and a 25-year-old woman named Dorothy Conner from our own Medford, Oregon, makes a brief appearance, too.

“I’d never seen a more uneventful or stupid voyage,” Conner writes in what has to be one of the most ironic passages of all time.

I’ve also discovered other writers who seem to want readers like you and me to hear the music: Candice Millard, David McCullough, Daniel James Brown, Mary Roach, Luis Alberto Urrea, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Simon Winchester among them. They all treat facts as musical notes and play beautifully.

Larson introduced me to this narrative nonfiction ecosystem, and with every new discovery in that space, I will have him to thank. I should probably thank him for this piece you’re reading, too. I started utilizing one of his writing techniques after listening to a 2006 NPR interview with him. When he’s done writing for the day, he always stops in the middle of a sentence.

“…you stop in mid-sentence, and for the rest of the day, and throughout the next night, your mind is not only completing that sentence, quietly in this sort of subconscious, you know, realm,” he says in the interview. “It’s also adding the next sentence and the next and the next. I find it’s just a tremendous tool.”

Did you know this really works? Try it sometime.

Larson continues with his latest work, The Demon of Unrest, which debuted at the end of last month. It’s described on Goodreads as the story of “the pivotal five months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War — a simmering crisis that finally tore a deeply divided nation in two.” The book’s cover shows Fort Sumter, under fire and burning, Charleston Harbor waters reflecting the destructive lights.

I, like many, have watched Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series multiple times, but I know the man who writes about devils and demons – and everything in between – will have even more to say.

Sing, rather. It’s music, after all.

For a list of other narrative nonfiction, click here.