Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tangents ("One Summer" by Bill Bryson)

For all the history contained within his books--the history of science, of language, of domestic life, of nations, of "nearly everything"--Bill Bryson's writing is grounded in the modern world. Read any other work of biography or historical nonfiction, especially concerning specific events, and you'll find the authors rehashing those events (and introducing the people involved) according to an exhausted formula:  begin with the event itself, capped off with a sentence or two about how this seemingly innocent time will change history; go back and start at the beginning of the story, when one or more of the principal players was born; trace the lives of those involved, making special note of disparities in their upbringings or experiences, as though they mean something more than what they really do; and treat the climactic moments as though it were the closing moments of a thriller, with sparse prose and short, matter-of-fact sentences. Along the way, the writer must stop for small sidetracks into historical context that add quite a lot to our understanding of the events themselves--social unrest, race relations, a changing social structure or shifting political ideologies--but often take away from the topic at hand and add little to the author's credibility.

In Bryson's books, however, those sidetracks are the story. In fact, where other writers see history as linear, destined to be written about as a series of events forming the inevitable straight line from Point A to Point B, Bryson sees history as a chaotic web of activity that, taken together, become a map of parallels, coincidences, contrasts, and strange incidents...what we might call actual history. (In other words, Bryson sees history as a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, whereas other authors see history as a paint-by-numbers still life; the importance is in the patterns and intersections, of which there are many, rather than the cleanliness of lines and isolation of color.) In a world where writing about history involves whitewashing out 95% of the information and 100% of the ethical ambiguity and nuance--the "textbook style" of writing--Bryson takes our past and its people for what they are, because it's that chaotic web that makes our collective human experiences worth studying.

One Summer is the story of four months in American history--a very narrow time frame for someone who has previously written about the entire scope of man's scientific inquiry. However, these four months--at least according to Bryson--are worthy of study, if for no other reason than their effects on the world in which we live today. Contained within that June-to-September span are monumental jumps in human progress, such as the invention of television by Philo Farnsworth and Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic Ocean. There is important social change--the beginning of Prohibition's end, for one, as well as a meeting of the rich and powerful that will lay the groundwork for the Stock Market Crash and Great Depression two years later. There is Babe Ruth making a surprise comeback, iron-bodied Jack Dempsey transforming the sport of boxing into a national obsession, and a murder trail that enamors an entire population with its scandal. And there are the figures both famous and infamous, many of them now forgotten, who shaped our entire world--sometimes intentionally, often accidentally--and whose flawless work fails to mirror the personal legacies they left behind.

Bryson's pages are populated by men and women who led fascinating lives and held powerful positions--Lindbergh, Ruth, Dempsey, Calvin Coolidge, Al Capone, Herbert Hoover, Lou Gehrig, and so on--but lived lives that were strange, controversial, and tragic, often all at the same time. Their stories are the heart of Bryson's book because, as Bryson very well knows, history is the story of individuals. In any other book we'd be asked by the author, in classic textbook-style fashion, to wonder if there ever could be another time and place when this sort of thing could have ever happen; in contrast, Bryson writes as though this seemingly random assemblage of stories is all that history truly is, and nothing more. And he does this because that's what history actually is, like a single streak of paint on a canvass:  alone it means very little, but taken as one stroke among hundreds and suddenly it's a portrait of something specific, something more than just its parts.

But we're forced to wonder, as we close the book--and what a bittersweet moment that is, to close the covers on a book by Bill Bryson--if Bryson's choice of these four months could be replicated with the same ease and outcome. Could there be another four months--not necessarily summer months, not necessarily American or from the previous century--that would reveal themselves to be just as relevant and engaging? The answer must be, undoubtedly, yes. And at the heart of Bryson's book is an awareness that, regardless of what subject or location or time period he could've chosen to write about, there would've been another 500-plus pages of material. Human history is rich and bottomless, and to only skim the surface of those waters--so sweet, so bloody--is to do a disservice to those individuals who stand in the past as forces of change. They do not stand as heroes or villains, but rather as gray figures deserving of our attention and our study but not our blind worship or scorn. After all, to know them is to know our history, our world, and ourselves, from one paint streak to the next.