The Man from Johnstown

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The Man from Johnstown

My wife and I were roaming around an RV show at the Daytona Speedway yesterday and the older (cantankerous!) gentleman behind the smoke and heat of the hot dogs and hamburgers he was grilling somehow mentioned he was from Johnstown and I about jumped. One of my favorite writers, Erik Larson, cites David McCullough’s book The Johnstown Flood as a great book and one that was influential on him. I’m reading it now and completely understand what was so great about it–I’m about half-way through.

“No kidding!” I said, “I’m reading The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough right now!”

He grimaced–Not sure he was familiar with the book.

“It’s about the flood there,” I said.

“Which one?” he said.

It turns out the small town was plagued by floods before and since. And with the exodus of all the steel work it once had, the town hasn’t apparently grown much in the hundred+ years since the flood which I’m reading about, brought to life very well by McCullough.

And that’s a large part of why I love the non-fiction narratives of McCullough and Larson. I find them exciting, even, and read with a different kind of confidence as they’re based on real life fact and cited. The exception may be the sort of founder of the genre, Truman Capote, who cites no sources with In Cold Blood,, but which, of course, is another great book.

The ability to visit sites written about, and meet people who were there in some way are part of the allure of the “creative non-fiction” genre. But more than that I enjoy the time travel in these books, and the journeys to so many real-life places. I find my sense of history develops as these little islands of historical focus, brought to life in my imagination by research, and by extrapolation of the many human stories, start to expand and their edges touch, and I find I enjoy, more and more, a greater sense of the trek of human civilization, if in a very limited way.

And that makes the present all the more appreciable, if you ask me.

Do you have similar experiences?

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