Townwide book club to read new biography of Edison

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange launched a book club on Saturday, Oct. 26, when the Thomas Edison National Historical Park teamed up with Random House for the debut of “Edison,” a biography of the town’s most famous resident by Pulitzer Award-winner Edmund Morris. From November through April, the park will be teaming up with local organizations to read the book and discuss the innovations Thomas Edison made in his laboratory complex on Main Street; in April, Edison’s great-grandson, David Edison Sloane, will speak at one of the discussions. Morris died in May, and the event doubled as a tribute to him and the research he did during the last three years at TENHP.

“We had talked about doing something; we felt we ought to have some sort of celebration for the book,” the park’s archivist, Leonard DeGraaf, said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event. “It’s fantastic. It think it will open Edison’s life up to people.”

Morris was an award-winning biographer who wrote a three-volume narrative about President Theodore Roosevelt and he was also President Ronald Reagan’s official biographer. “Edison” was a seven-year research project for him, and he spent three years combing through documents and notebooks in West Orange with the help of DeGraaf. Much of the information he used was on display for the public to see at the book launch, a rare occurrence at the park.

“Not a lot of people do that,” DeGraaf said of Morris’ on-site research. “Edmund loved the details. He understood the best way to get those details. He was doing archival research, and it’s comparable to how Edison worked. Doing archival research is very important because those are the primary sources. They’re the closest to the subject you can get. It’s so critical to getting the story right.”

Edison’s lab notebooks, pocket notebooks and sketches were on display at the event, along with letters in his own handwriting. The documents were taken out of boxes, stored in a climate controlled environment and watched over by DeGraaf, who coordinates when researchers can see them. DeGraaf got to know Morris during the writer’s three years coming and going from TENHP and helped him find the resources he needed.

“Edmund was a master of that, taking the literature of the subject and pulling the facts,” he said. “My job was to help him find what he was looking for. I didn’t intrude, but I worked hard to answer those questions he had and I had a lot of fun doing it. It was like playing ‘Where’s Waldo?’”

Andy Ward, Morris’ editor at Random House, spoke at the event about his author and compared his work ethic to Edison’s. While working on the book, Morris stuck to the same rigorous schedule every day: He woke at 4 a.m., worked until he ate breakfast, and then went back to work until lunch five hours later. He worked a few hours of free time into his day before dinner, worked on the book for another two hours and then got up the next day and repeated the process.

“He did this every day and never took so much as a vacation,” Ward said at the event. “We hear a lot about Edison’s work ethic. I think this was a side of Edison that Edmund Morris could deeply relate to. My hope is that Edison would be pleased with what Edmund did.”

TENHP Superintendent Thomas Ross remembers Morris fondly, saying at the event that he enjoyed the days when, on the way to his office, he would see Morris working.

“It was great walking to my office and seeing Mr. Morris in the archive working away,” Ross said. “He was a wonderful person to speak with and it was a real privilege to have him here. It was our pleasure to work with him.”

West Orange historian Joseph Fagan will be kicking off the book club on Sunday, Nov. 10, with a talk about Edison during the World War I years, and the book club will then meet again on Sunday, Dec. 15, when DeGraaf will be speaking to residents about the various biographies that have been written about Edison. More information about the club can be found by calling DeGraaf at 973-736-0550.

“It made sense that West Orange would start with ‘Edison,’” the archivist said about the first time West Orange will read a book together. “He’s such a big part of the fabric of the town. It’s a starting point to have a conversation about our shared heritage.” 

Photos by Amanda Valentovic