Book Club: Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes

“But there’s no such thing as Paris without the Eiffel Tower,” said my friend Florence the other day.  Locals have complicated views about the tower of iron, but perhaps she is right.  But the beginning of pondering that question should
start with Jill Jonnes’ fascinating book, Eiffel’s Tower: the thrilling story behind Paris’ beloved monument and the extraordinary World’s Fair that introduced it.

In this book you learn just how much it took for Eiffel to overcome in order to build this true architectural achievement of its time.  It stood as the world’s tallest building for 30 years, and took only 2.5 years to complete (perhaps one of the few French building projects ever completed on time).  In contrast the previous “tallest building” in the world was the Washington Monument in Washington D.C., which was half the height of the Eiffel Tower and took 40 years to complete.  Mind you, there was a little thing called the War Between the States during that 1848-1888 period of construction, but still, you can imagine many Americans, including Thomas Edison, felt a bit of envy to have the French claim a technological achievement before America did.

Edison was feted when he visited the Tower – he was the great man of innovation and ideas and Eiffel toasted him with champagne at the summit of the Eiffel Tower.  But he emptily boasted that for the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair that they would build something twice as tall at half the price.  The French raised their eyebrows, understandably so when what ended up being invented for that event was not some tall tower, but the Ferris Wheel.

Jonnes writes a compelling narrative, bringing all the characters together in a cohesive story that is, oddly, suspenseful, especially given that we already know how events turned out.  I shared this book with some local Parisians and they told me it forever changed how they saw and understood the Tower, which is just the sort of antidote you need, especially when you’re walking past the Selfie Nation on the Champs de Mars.

But perhaps you will be most edified to learn how well Eiffel bore up under the most vile and vicious attacks, before, during, and well after the construction of the Tower.  It is his entrepreneurial genius – something the French could allow to flourish a bit more these days – that is the true story behind this great little book.