The other day, I found myself describing Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon to some friends, and admitted that as much as I enjoyed his work, he was an author who never met a digression he didn’t like.
Bill Bryson occupies a niche that allows him to produce books that are often the accumulation of their digressions. I don’t say that negatively—I enjoy the style and the content, and he does it well, diligently making the connections that thread the digressions into a narrative.
Still, One Summer doesn’t hold together as well as his other books. I think this is because the most substantial hook he has upon which to hang his narrative is that pivotal moments in the various parallel stories he is telling take place in this one summer—but much of the book is everything that leads up to the events happening that summer and a lesser but still significant part is concerned with what happened afterward, and the actual events happening that summer are generally (but not always) unrelated except for being “significant”.
As a consequence, it doesn’t grant the various narrative threads the same sense of coherence that you find in In a Sunburned Country, or A Walk in the Woods, or even At Home.
Which is not to say that I didn’t find it an interesting read; the individual threads it covers are significant ones, taking place at an inflection point in the rate of change in our society—it just doesn’t make for a coherent fabric of a narrative.