Even after my mild disappointment with the tone of his last book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island, which struck me as often sharp or even mean-spirited, I still have an affection for Bill Bryson. What better way to guarantee a more pleasant encounter, then to go back to the beginning (almost) to The Mother Tongue.
So I’ll say at the outset that I have no idea how much of the content of this book is still considered…correct. I mean, like all of Bryson’s books (that I’ve read, at least), it’s a mostly coherent-ish narrative drawing a line through a metric ton of facts, and all I can really speak with authority about is the value of the narrative part.
And the narrative is pretty interesting—English as a language is clearly a bit of a mutt, and seems poised to go and have even more puppies with more partners in the future; there’s no end in sight.
Even more interesting, I think (and something that almost certainly wasn’t clear when Bryson first wrote the book in 1990), is that there’s a reasonable chance that it will continue to be more or less a single language, because the Intertubes provide such unprecedented opportunity for groups with nothing in common geographically to nonetheless interact—in effect, to hold a dialog about what the language will become.
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.