Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #8: One Summer by Bill Bryson

There's nothing wrong with bourgeois history, in its place; it's just that "its place" seems to be every damn place in the world. But since I am pretty darn bourgeois myself, I probably shouldn't complain too much.

Bill Bryson has made a very comfortable career about telling Americans (and Brits, at least some of the time) things that they either already know or that make them feel smarter and better. His early work was mostly books on language (e.g.: The Mother Tongue) or travel books of the I-wandered-around-there-for-a-few-weeks style (Notes from a Small Island, forex). And I have to admit that I greatly enjoyed pretty much all of those books; Bryson is an engaging writer of bestselling nonfictions, very able with plausible sentences and research-derived facts.

About a decade ago, Bryson apparently decided he'd rather stay home to write, and the travel books stopped. He'd also run through the bulk of what he had to say about words, as well, so he turned to more general nonfiction, though -- to his great credit -- he has never committed a "why this seemingly boring thing changed The Entire World" book. He did write a paean to Boomer exceptionalism -- disguised lightly as a memoir about how he had the bestest childhood in the bestest city in the bestest country in the bestest decade in the whole wide world -- in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which came close to erasing all of the good work he'd done up to then. But he settled down, before and after, to old-shoe comfort histories like A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, in which he went on at great length about the social history of the stuff in his gorgeous old house.

Bryson is now a middle-aged man, which means he's required to do a book about baseball, or how wonderful a particular moment in the past was, or some now-forgotten murder case, or a great American hero. Being Bryson, he decided to shove them all together and get it all over with at once: the result is One Summer: America, 1927.

One Summer is mostly about Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth, with major digressions to Sacco & Vanzetti, Herbert Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge. Minor digressions include Al Jolson, Al Capone, Henry Ford, Philo T. Farnsworth, Jerome Kern, famed executionist Robert G. Elliott, Gutson Borglum, the great Mississippi flood of that year, Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, the eugenics movement, Jack Dempsey, the pole-sitting fad, and Charles Ponzi. Bryson's thesis, such as it is, is just that these four months in 1927 in the US were a particularly interesting time and place, though I imagine a skilled writer could do an equally compelling book about any four months of the last hundred-and-fifty years, even if restricted to a smaller geographic area than an entire country. It's organized partially by time and partially by subject -- Lindbergh and Ruth recur throughout, but most of the other folks get their moment and then disappear again -- as it meanders through various things that happened in mid-1927, backtracking to explain their history and fast-forwarding a bit to reveal what their eventual ends were.

So this is quintessential bourgeois history: it's set long enough ago that even the most reactionary reader won't be disconcerted by the politics -- who today will honestly claim to be on the side of eugenics and the KKK? -- and it's full of semi-random facts that its readers will struggle to remember and bring up in conversations for the next six months. It's quite pleasant to read, but entirely pointless; Bryson isn't really trying to prove anything, or even give a picture of what ordinary life was at the time. He just wants to hit some highlights in a year with a bunch of them.

If you have some time to kill, and particularly if you're the kind of middle-aged man who is constitutionally incapable of reading fiction, One Summer is right up your alley. If you're still hoping Bryson will get back out into the world and talk to people, you have some more time to wait.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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