Bill Bryson is probably my favourite contemporary nonfiction writer. I think I have read every single thing he’s written (even his books on spelling and grammar, which I loved). I think he’s brilliant and hilarious – and he’s got that rare ability to write across genres (memoir, travel writing, history, biography, science) without losing any of his charm in the process.
The first Bill Bryson book I ever bought was as an exchange student in the UK in early 2006. I got a gift voucher for 20 pounds at Waterstone’s for participating in a photo shoot at Bournemouth University (you can see me in the 2006-07 prospectus) and spent it on a copy of the 1995 travel book Notes from a Small Island. I think that because I was just discovering Britain for the first time myself, and Bryson’s dry, witty observations so closely mirrored my own, it resonated particularly strongly with me (There’s one part where he has trouble finding the ferry at Calais – I had similar trouble at Calais with the Eurostar and ended up in a farmers’ field.). It kind of felt like it was written for me, and at the age of 20, I was hooked on Bill Bryson.
I actually started One Summer: America, 1927 back in October, but it had to take a backseat to my practicum and a few assignment-heavy weeks at school. I wanted to give Bill Bryson the attention he deserved, so I picked it back up over the winter break. It travelled with me up to Donnelly to visit Matt in mid-December and I finally polished it off the day before Christmas.
One Summer is divided into five sections, each representing a different month in America during the summer of 1927 beginning in May and ending in September. Bryson covers Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking trans-Atlantic flight, a spectacular summer of baseball for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a sensational murder trial, Prohibition, the beginning of construction on Mount Rushmore, the lead-up to the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, the advent of talking motion pictures, the premiere of the musical Show Boat (one of my favourites, coincidentally) and a host of other events, both big and small.
What I love most about Bill Bryson is that he never dwells for so long on one thing. He turns history into little entertaining stories (which, in my opinion, is the best way to read history anyway) and his keen observations – especially when it comes to odd or humorous details – make for a great read. Like this review in the New York Times notes, Bryson has a great gift for bringing characters to life.
For example, did you know that US president Calvin Coolidge was presented with a cowboy outfit during the summer of 1927 and sometimes wore it just for fun when his workday was over? Or that the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Montagu Norman “always travelled in disguise, even when there was no plausible reason for doing so?” And then there’s this sentence, which I just loved. “Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Isn’t that great?
(The New York Times review in the link above also claims that some of Bryson’s facts are wild exaggerations. I’m not enough of a 1920s history buff to know one way or another about this, but I will say that One Summer appears to have a very extensive bibliography and reference notes that are broken down by chapter at the end of the book.)
History is almost never a light read, and I did have to wait for a time where my schedule was a little less intense to read One Summer, but it was well worth it. This would be a great gift for history buffs, social studies teachers and my dad, who gets to borrow my copy now that I’m done with it. Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, I loved it.