I’m a commuter, so a lot of my reading gets done while riding on or waiting for trains. When I’m stuck on the commute, I pretty much have to read or I’m stuck looking around at the strangers who surround me, imagining what kinds of communicable diseases they have. No matter what I think of the book I’m carrying I can guarantee I’ll get a certain amount of reading done on my way too and from work. The real test of a book’s quality, to me anyway, is how willing I am to crack it open when I’m not on the train. With Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, I found myself reading it whenever I could. I would crack it open while waiting for a streetlight to change just so I could squeeze in another paragraph.
The Last Days of Night follows real-life lawyer Paul Cravath as he is plucked out of obscurity to lead the largest lawsuit in history, George Westinghouse’s effort to break the most valuable patent in history, the one held by Thomas Edison on the lightbulb. At stake was the future of electric light in America, both the method by which the light would be supplied, and who would get to become staggeringly wealthy by supplying it. Eventually the lawsuit became a battle between the direct current system preferred by Thomas Edison and the alternate current developed by Nikola Tesla and propounded by Westinghouse.
Moore has chosen his subject well. The “war of the currents” is one of those historical episodes that lives on in the imaginations of anyone interested in history, science, and technology. The figures involved are legendary. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla are names that resonate over a century after their greatest accomplishments. By locating his story on Cravath, Moore gets to paint a picture of the three legends at the center of the story without burdening his novel with trying to perfectly capture these inscrutable figures. It also gives him significantly more leeway to speculate and invent, as Cravath’s actions and opinions are not as well-known or recorded as his peers.
Through its brisk, short chapters, The Last Days of Night explores the legal maneuvering required of Cravath, the subterfuge both Westinghouse and Edison engaged in, and the incomparable mind of Tesla, whose ideas were decades ahead of their time. It’s a fascinating narrative version of one of history’s greatest stories. And while Moore readily admits to condensing the timeframe, inventing some conversations, and manipulating some details to his advantage, I don’t think readers will mind.