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At Day's Close: Night in Times Past Paperback – October 17, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Engrossing, leisurely paced and richly researched, this history finds Ekirch reminding us of how preindustrial Westerners lived during the nocturnal hours, when most were plunged into almost total darkness. By describing how that darkness spelled heightened risk—of stumbles, drowning, fires and other dangers—Ekirch accounts for the traditional association of nighttime with fear and suspicion, illuminating the foundations of popular beliefs in satanic forces and the occult. He also describes how the night literally provided a cloak of darkness for crimes and insurrections, and how fear of the night sometimes led to racist blame and accusation. A professor of history at Virginia Tech, Ekirch ranges across the archives of Europe and early colonial America to paint a portrait of how the forces of law and order operated at night, and he provides fascinating insight into nocturnal labor—of masons, carpenters, bakers, glassmakers and iron smelters, among many others. The hardest nocturnal workers were women, Ekirch writes, doing laundry after a full day's domestic work. Ekirch also evokes benign nighttime activities, such as drinking and alehouse camaraderie; the thrill of aristocratic masquerades; the merrymaking of harvest suppers and dances. A rich weave of citation and archival evidence, Ekirch's narrative is rooted in the material realities of the past, evoking a bygone world of extreme physicality and preindustrial survival stratagems. 8 pages of color and 60 b&w illus. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* Historian Ekirch re-creates the ambience of the European nocturnal world prior to the advent of artificial lighting in a fresh and thought-provoking cultural inquiry. Drawing on works of literature, letters, diaries, and criminal court documents, and maintaining throughout an infectious sense of wonder, Ekirch ignites the reader's imagination with example-rich descriptions of humankind's "age-old fear of darkness" and belief that the night is the domain of demons, witches, and ghosts. Turning to science to document the fact that we are more prone to illness, accidents, and death at night, Ekrich then lists a plague of former nighttime hazards, including spooked horses, emptied chamber pots, fire, and the dastardly crimes of the time. He compares the rural night with the city night, night as endured by the poor and enjoyed by the wealthy, and discusses sleep habits, romance, storytelling, dreams, and the liberation under the stars of the otherwise oppressed and maligned, from slaves to gays and lesbians. As Ekirch so vividly evokes the old magic of true night, he casts a skeptical eye on our brightly lit, 24/7 life, in which the heavens are obscured and we sit enraptured before computer and TV screens, oblivious to nature. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
"Rather than falling, night, to the watchful eye, rises. Emerging first in the valleys, shadows slowly ascend sloping hillsides. Fading rays known as "sunsuckers" dart upward behind clouds as if being inhaled for another day. While pastures and woodlands are lost to gloom, the western sky remains aglow even as the sun draws low beneath the horizon."
And it only gets better!
Beautiful and poetic, at least so says I. Reminds me of Barbara Tuchman's writing. In particular her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, And If you order At Day's Close and like it as much as I do, I'm sure you'll like hers as well.
The past that Mr. Ekirch presents is absolutely fascinating, strange, and heretofore unknown to me. I don't mean to come down hard on those who might disagree, but I'm very concerned that others might skip this offering, and I hate to think of anyone missing out on it. I've certainly encountered many books written by college professors about subjects I thought would be enjoyable to read about, but their writing sometimes has been daunting. I remember an essay (I've forgotten it's title) Flannery O'Connor wrote about her experience addressing a symposium in some Ivy League institution back East about Southern Fiction. After being asked a number of convoluted, deconstructionist type questions by faculty members, she stopped her speech and shaking her head said, "You know, sometimes you academics strain the soup a bit thin for my taste." So when I read the complaints about Professor Ekirch's prose, I admit I felt a little reluctant to order the book. I worried that I'd be, once again, wasting my money and time. Please don't worry about that. At Day's Close is an absolute delight.
Daddy says: "You'll love it. Buy it."
"At Day's Close" details what living with darkness was like in the early modern era, though the author does hop back a bit further on occasion and forward a bit when necessary. The research required to build this work was enormous. I can only imagine how much effort it took to find references to the night in documents of that era. Well done, Mr. Ekirch!
Overall this is an engaging work. Given that there is no one protagonist, other than night itself, there isn't a very smooth narrative flow. I suppose part of that is due to the source material and the way it is spread over a few centuries. With the exception of Samuel Pepys' diaries, there is no one consistent "voice" though many voices speak.
Despite the somewhat uneven nature of his prose, the author does a fine job getting across the many ways darkness affected human lives. He, wisely I think, has managed to divide night's many facets into manageable, more or less discrete subjects allowing him to tease apart the whole.
If you are interested in what night once was now that it is buried under a sea of artificial light you will enjoy this work.
What makes it so fun is just how SURPRISING these facts turn out to be. Like how hard it was to get a candle in the early days. I mean, did you know some ducks can burn as a candle? Or the evolution of technology of gaslights, of which I foolishly believed were all kind of the same. By the time electricity showed up they were considered to be actually TOO bright, with eyeball searingly luminescent coal gas lighting the streets from end to end.
I've really never read any book on any topic that gave me such a feeling that I really had no idea just how differently people lived in different eras. Perhaps because the one thing I assumed we all pretty much had in common, sleep, contained more historical variation than I ever imagined.
An excitingly fun book, even if it did make me fall asleep constantly...
If you like knowing about the details of peoples lives from other times and places, this book will STICK. You'll find yourself thinking about it days weeks and months later- each time you look up at the night sky.