Bill Bryson has convinced many a hardcore fiction fan, including yours truly, to love and appreciate non-fiction.
It’s rare to find a dedicated non-fiction writer so firmly entrenched in pop culture, but Bryson’s talents have rightfully attained him this rarefied status. Bryson not only possesses one of the greatest senses of humor of any writer, but also has the gift of being able to explain just about anything to anybody in an engaging and comprehensible way.
Case in point: A Short History of Nearly Everything has been described as one of the most accessible compilations of science ever written. I believe that if it were made the textbook for introductory high school science classes, we could spawn a veritable epidemic of lab-loving geeks. And how much fun would that be!?
One Summer: America, 1927 is Bryson’s latest book. It describes, with surrounding background detail, the major historical events of the summer of 1927. That there are enough of these to fill a 450-page book should give you an idea of just how momentous a summer it actually was. Babe Ruth was smacking the crap out of baseballs, America’s stock market was partying like it was 1999 (to draw a more recent parallel), and the government, under “silent Cal” Coolidge was largely staying the heck out of the way. The one major exception was of course prohibition, but no matter, Al Capone was happily keeping the thirsty nation supplied with gin and whisky from the third coast of Chicago.
This was also the summer Charles Lindbergh successfully crossed the Atlantic non-stop in his rickety, canvas-covered Spirit of St. Louis. Bryson relates the riveting story of the race to accomplish this feat, and paints memorable portraits of the peculiar and raffish characters involved.
These are just a few examples from a book that is packed from cover to cover with interesting anecdotes, facts, and historical corrections. Bryson’s writing brings it all alive. He makes it vivid and captivates the reader without resorting to devices of historical fiction. The truth is eye-popping enough.
I had only two issues with the book. The first being its non-linearity. This makes it a little harder to follow, but serves as a reminder that history does not move in a straight line. Most histories like to smooth things over into a palatable narrative. That’s not, however, how it originally went down. One Summer does not attempt this post-processing, but presents the events mostly as they unfolded.
The other issue I have is mainly why I didn’t give the book a higher rating. Largely missing from the book is Bryson’s voluminous wit. There are sprinkles of it, dryly, here and there, but the guffaws of A Walk in the Woods are not present. I am not sure how Bryson turns this on and off, but I personally would appreciate it if he could find the on switch for his next book.