Saturday, February 18, 2012

London Under by Peter Ackroyd

By my own lights, I'm still reading Peter Ackroyd's gigantic mosaic history London -- I have a bookmark in it and everything -- although I haven't touched that book for several years, so my "reading" it is mostly theoretical at this point. But his companion book, London Under, was so short -- and, even more importantly, compact, so it could easily ride with me on the train to and from work -- that I was done with it almost before I started.

London Under is as broad and as loosely organized as the larger London is, but the breadth that is an advantage in a big, sprawling book doesn't work as well in a shorter book, which should be more focused and precise. Ackroyd shovels in all of the anecdotes and references he can find into London Under's thirteen chapters, but they don't always flow all that well, and the book itself has no obvious organizing principle. Even the chapters of London Under have a tendency to wander from archaeology to geology to various types of engineering (water, sewer, railroad, electrical) to spelunking to the biology of various pests, with lots of patented Ackroyd Deep Thinking and conspicuously fine writing as mortar to stick it all together.

So London Under is much more "Ackroyd meditates on the stuff beneath the ground of a great city" and much less "here's what's actually there, and how it interacts with the surface world and the other systems". To be blunt, London Under will greatly disappoint and frustrate any reader wanting a more Henry Petroski-style look at what undergirds London. But, if you find sewers, underground trains, and hidden caverns romantic and poetic, Ackroyd is exactly your man.

1 comment:

Jean said...

Just found your review while writing mine. Spot on; I was annoyed by the lack of solid information and the constant flights of fancy.

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