The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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April 25, 2012

The Technologists

I almost didn't read Matthew Pearl's new novel, The Technologists.  It came in on library reserve along with several other books that I wanted to read more, and although I remember enjoying his three earlier books, they had literary subjects, and this one didn't.  But I was starting a new commute, with an hour or so to read on the way home, and I needed a new book to christen it with.  I'd just zip through this one, get it over with, go on to something more interesting...
Sometimes I think there's no better reading experience than finding a book that doesn't interest you at all that you can't put down.  The Technologists is set in 1868, as the first class of 15 men to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology come to the end of their college days.  The principal character is Marcus Mansfield, a young man' from Newburyport who fought in the Civil War and worked as a machinist in a Boston locomotive factory before coming to MIT as a 'charity scholar.'   But before we meet Marcus and his friends, a series of disasters falls on Boston:  ships entering the harbor on a foggy day smash into each other and sink, and strange fumes... (No, you should find out what happens next for yourself. It's really well done.) 

Since there is a clearly a explanation in physics, or chemistry, or engineering for these devastating events, Marcus and his friends expect that the scientists at their new school will join in a search for answers.  But the traditionalists at Harvard, the press, religious leaders, labor organizers and Boston society look on MIT as an upstart, or a place of dangerous new thinking, and the faculty decides that the school will be blamed for what has happened and must distance itself.  When the college's president summons Marcus for a secret meeting, then suffers a stroke before he can explain why, Marcus decides that he must investigate anyway, to prevent more damage and to uphold the school's honor.

Before it moved to Cambridge in the 1930s, MIT was on Boylston Street in Boston. I loved the descriptions of Back Bay (my new neighborhood, soon!), which was just being carved out of swampy shoreline, filled and laid out when the book is set.  I also loved the characters, and found myself hoping that some of them, like Ellen Swallow, MIT's first and then only female student, were real people (she was! and others were too). Even though this is so different from the kind of book I'm usually drawn to, I'm so glad I read it.  Very, very well written, and a perfect mixing together of historical detail, well-drawn characters, a lot of suspense, a long list of suspects, and a plot that moves forward like a freight train (or even by a freight train).

{map found here}


Lisa May said...

My library list is ridiculously long, and yet I can't resist adding this one to it! Your review was the first I'd heard of it - thanks.

Nan said...

I've read only his first one, and keep meaning to continue. He really does have a gift of bringing the old, great dead alive, I think. And this story sounds really interesting.
When we went to school at BU, we had two apartments - one on Marlborough St., and the other on Newbury before it was this trendy, shopping mecca. Erewhon was down at the end, with another place, The Organic Food Cellar, right in the middle.

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