Bill Bryson. Every time I hear he has a new book out, I get excited. Bill Bryson was one of my earliest introductions to reading both non-fiction and travel writing for pleasure. I appreciate his intelligence and unquenchable curiosity about the world around him. He is one of those people who decides he wants to know more about a topic, engages in exhaustive research, and writes a highly knowledgeable and completely enjoyable book before moving on to the next topic that captures his fancy. His topics have ranged from Australia, England, and Europe, along with his childhood in Iowa, to the history of the home, Shakespeare, and, well, nearly everything. I know that no matter which of his books I pick up, it will be filled with interesting facts, a creative narrative form, immense readability, thorough research, and his quintessential brand of absolutely hilarious humor. (His book, In a Sunburned Country, the first of his that I read, kept me in stitches and caused my brother to literally fall off the couch, he was laughing so hard.)
One Summer: America 1927 is no exception to this tried and true formula. In his latest work, Bryson explores the incredible and mind-blowing achievements coming out of America from May to August 1927. Each section of the book focuses around a month and a person, and he deftly hangs the interconnected narratives of the myriad of individuals on this frame. “May: The Kid” features Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic to Paris. “June: The Babe” begins with Babe Ruth and his “assault on the home run record”. “July: The President” highlights perhaps the most unimpressive and ineffective presidency in American history, that of Calvin Coolidge, who is notable for not caring at all for his job or his role. And “August: The Anarchists” is structured around those famous Italians, Sacco and Vanzetti. These section titles only hint, however, at the sheer volume of achievements covered in this book. Interwoven through these main foci are Henry Ford’s Model A and the eventual decline of the Ford Motor Company; the role of the movie theatre and impact of “talkies” on Hollywood, starting (sort of) with The Jazz Singer; Al Capone’s meteoric rise to control Chicago’s mafia and Prohibition-era alcohol black market; the murder that lead to one of the biggest tabloid sensations in history; and the four international bankers who effectively engineered the Great Depression. And who doesn’t want to read about the crazy, pro-Prohibition judge and baseball’s first commissioner, spectacularly named Kennesaw Mountain Landis?
One of Bryson’s talents is taking a huge amount of information and organizing and packaging it in a meaningful and digestible way. Bryson tells the stories of the various players in bits and spurts, almost like digressions (no wonder I like his style) that tie back together to make the connections between players and events completely clear. None of these events existed in a vacuum, and Bryson allows the reader to engage with the impact of their inter-connectedness. The discussion of Ruth Snyder’s murder of her husband comes seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of the story of Lindbergh’s childhood. While fascinating, the point of Bryson’s focus on Snyder and her lover do not become clear until he begins to describe the media circus that rose up around their trial. More newspaper inches were devoted to Snyder’s case than were to the sinking of the Titanic; it was the single most nationally covered event to date. The media frenzy around Charles Lindbergh would blow the coverage of the Snyder trial out of the water. However, the impact of the media’s response to Lindbergh was made much more so by the comparison to the Snyder trial. Bryson is not just interested in telling a linear story. What he himself is interested in are these seemingly random connections between people, between events, between the private and the public, and he weaves these connections together in a thoughtful, detailed, and entertaining way.
I appreciate the way Bryson writes, the stories intertwining throughout the book, punctuated with moments or people or humor. It’s very digressive, and if you’ve ever had a real conversation with me, you know this lines up pretty closely with the way I think and speak. Reading Bryson is like having a really well-researched conversation with someone who thinks like me. It’s awesome. It’s also incredibly readable. Bryson does not buy into academic jargon; rather, he is someone who values learning and providing information in a straightforward, entertaining way. Having been a journalist for several years, he understands the value of suspense and building tension. He brilliantly captures the danger of Lindbergh’s flight, the glamour of Clara Bow, the suspense of Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s race for the home run record, and the charming ruthlessness of Al Capone’s operation. He also has an eye for the quirks of humanity, and each personality presented is as individual and fully realized as they were when they were alive (or so I assume). Bryson injects his own hilarious opinion in the narrative through witty responses and cheerfully snarky asides, but he does not shy away from discussing the negative aspects of people and events either. He writes the most difficult sections with straightforward clarity, and though his opinion of some of these terrible things is obvious, he does not make his own feelings the focus of the book.
My British Studies professor, Dr. Louis, often proclaimed I was a fan of the “general history” genre. I suppose this is true. I love learning about anything and everything, and a well-written general history provides the perfect opportunity to learn enough about something to determine whether or not I want to pursue more in-depth reading. One Summer: America 1927 offers a perfect balance between general introduction to this time period and an in-depth look at several of the characters who made it a truly extraordinary summer. Humorous, readable, and completely engrossing, I highly recommend you check this book out. It sheds some astonishing light on an often under-appreciated summer in American history.