15 July 2012

London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd

It took me a more than a year to finish this epic non-fiction book of history/biography. Not that I couldn't have finished it earlier – under normal conditions it would have taken me about a week to read a novel of this length – but this humongous piece of non-fiction just isn't the kind of book I want to devour in a few reading sessions. For starters, it's heavy, both literally and figuratively speaking. The paperback edition I started reading weighs one kilo (that's about 2.2 lbs.) – the kind of book you really need to keep on a lectern or a book stand to read. Therefore it was a physical relief to be able to set it aside for a Kindle edition for the last 200 or so pages.

As for the figurative heaviness, it could easily have been cut down by 200+ pages without losing anything important. Ackroyd's style here is verbose, bloated and often aimless (but admittedly never dry), the equivalent of the talker who speaks only for the pleasure of hearing his own voice. This made for slow going, especially in the second half of the book, where the verbosity often threatens to suffocate the narrative. I continued reading, however, because the subject of the book really interests me. I find London fascinating and have often felt, as I wandered its streets, that I wanted to know more about it. This book delivered that in spades. In among the verbiage there was fascinating information to be found and interesting speculations about various aspects of the city.

Although it starts with prehistory and ends with a speculation on the future, the book is mostly not organised linearly, i.e. it doesn't tell the story of London from it's beginnings to modern times, but is rather organised by aspects of its history and people. You'll find chapters on such varied subjects as sound, street layouts, entertainment, disease, death in its various forms, trade, food and drink, sex, crime, times of day, children, women, immigrants, and the growth of suburbia, besides many others.This means that you can dip into the book at random if you so wish – there is no need to read it linearly. You might even be happier reading it in random order than I was reading it from cover to cover.

While this organisation makes for some interesting juxtapositions and makes the book easy to read in random order, I think Ackroyd tried a bit too hard to cover everything there was to be covered about London, and could have produced a more focused portrait of the city. As it is, he has, in nearly 800 pages, managed to merely whet my appetite for London. There are numerous threads of history that he mentions briefly that I would like to pick up and follow to their end. Some, of course, I am familiar with, like the Jack the Ripper case, while others, like the story of the London Underground, I am not.

For the reasons given above, I feel I can only give this book 2 stars (out of 5), but I do not regret reading it. It has given me much to think about and pointed out to me a number of books I would like to take a look at. Now I want to find a straightforward history of the city, and after that I might  read John Stow's 1598 Survey of London, which I learned about on a fascinating walking tour of London's financial district last year and is mentioned several times in this book.


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