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Novels and Heating History


In 1918, the person who could bring steam- or hot-water heat to your home was nearly a magician. In this episode, Dan Holohan explores how heating appears like a character in old novels and how things have changed over time.


Episode Transcript

Because I am in the semifinals of life, I read a lot of books. I do this because books take me to places I’ll never get to visit, and that includes the past. There’s so much we can learn about this business from the past, and I find the best lessons come from stories.

Each year, I set out to read at least 100 good books. This is my hobby and also a big part of my job. Writers have to stand in a pounding surf of words and absorb the stories.

In 2011, I decided to read all the books that have ever won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. There were 85 of them in 2011. They begin with 1918. Some years had no winner. I decided to read the list from both ends, aiming for the center, which in 2011, happened to be 1964, a year in which there was no winner. Each book is wonderful in its own way. Some are page-turners; others are head-scratchers. While fighting my way through one of William Faulkner’s tomes (he won the Pulitzer twice), I came across a sentence that went on for five and a half pages. I went immediately from that sentence to the liquor cabinet.

But I digress.

What I really want to tell you about today is the way that heating appears in just about all of those old novels, and almost as a character. The stove, the fireplace, the boiler, the radiators – they all move with the plot and affect the lives of the people in the stories. The novels keep circling back to how the heating worked, or didn’t work. And the crying need for warmth.

The newer novels are mainly about angst (and sex, of course), and if they mention heating at all, they get it all wrong. We come across, for instance, whirring pumps that circulate steam though the pipes. This usually gets me talking aloud to the pages. Are there no technical editors at these publishing companies? Couldn’t this brilliant novelist have called his local heating contractor and hired him for an afternoon to answer some basic questions.You don’t pump steam!

But stuff like that seems to be important only to those of us in this business. Most modern readers don’t sweat the technical details of heating, but only what it takes to stay warm. Only the writers of the earlier novels cared about how to stay warm. And there’s a lesson there.

Joseph Pulitzer wanted the prize for fiction to go to books that dealt with American life, which is what makes them so delicious for me. Each novel or book of short stories nails American life at a point in time. We find people living in cities, trying to get the fires going in boilers. We learn about coal and all that it involves. We also learn about what it takes to make a good fire in the fireplace, and who had to do that each day. We come across troubled and starving families living in prairie homes, and sleeping together to keep warm. This idea of warmth, which we now take for granted, was as essential to them as smartphones are to us. We joke that we can’t live without our smartphones, but those Americans were serious when they said they couldn’t live without the fire.

So I began with the 1918 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, which was His Family, by Ernest Poole, and also with the 2011 winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan. Then I take the next two, one from each end; read these, and then pick up the next two. And so on. I immerse myself in these people’s lives month after month. Taken together, it’s like watching a time-lapse film of America, played from both ends. I began on New Year’s Day that year, and by Memorial Day I had read 74 of the 85 books that won the prize. I’ve learned that we, as an industry, have done a very good job. So good a job that we’ve practically disappeared. Most Americans are comfortable now and they take what we do for granted. If the Pulitzer Prize winners mentioned us at all these days it’s the comment that has to do with the butt crack. There’s very little respect for what we do nowadays.

Read any of these older novels, though, and you’ll marvel at the way the writer treats our profession. Central heating and ventilating were new. Read these books and you’ll quake at what happens when neither is right. You’ll begin to see winter as they did so many years ago. For them, winter was a perennial brute, something for which you must carefully prepare. If not, it will steal your children. The cold is a living character in these older books, but not so much anymore because we’ve done our jobs very well.

In 1918, the person who could bring steam- or hot-water heat to your home was nearly a magician. This was a person who could change lives for the better – who could save lives. But generations slid by as the Pulitzer Committee awarded their prizes. The people in the HVAC industry learned from each other. The equipment got better and then it became automatic. We got so good as a profession that we disappeared. People take us for granted now. Winter is artificial now. It’s something that’s outside and easily avoided. Thermostats watch us move around rooms and learn our habits. They tell efficient boilers and furnaces when to start and stop and this happens without Americans even thinking about it.

They think of us only when things break and then it’s with resentment. We don’t come quickly enough because this is a Twitter world now. We charge too much because, after all, when we are through making repairs, they will only have what they had before we showed up, and nothing more. And when you take something such as warmth for granted, you assign it little value. We perceive warmth as a right these days. It has lost its urgency.

And all because we do what we do so well. Our professional competency has devalued us. And this is why there is a crying need now for stories.

Warmth is not a right. It must be worked for and earned. What would American life be like without us? Suppose we stopped doing what we do so invisibly from day to day? People would die. Read those earlier novels and the later ones. Read your way toward the center of the list. Read and think, or don’t read and just take my word for it. The important thing is to tell our story to people. Begin like this: Once upon a time, winter was inside as well as outside. We came along and changed that. And in doing so, we changed American lives for the better. What we do is important. And we are essential, every one of us. We are essential.

How’s that for a novel thought? Go tell it.

I hope you liked that story. And if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. Thanks for taking the time to listen. It means a lot. Thanks.

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