Skip to main content

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.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to make a simple origami bookmark

Here are some instructions on how to make a simple origami (paper folding) bookmark:

Take a square of paper. It can be patterned origami paper, gift paper or even office paper, just as long as it’s easy to fold. The square should not be much bigger than 10 cm/4 inches across, unless you intend to use the mark for a big book. The images show what the paper should look like after you follow each step of the instructions. The two sides of the paper are shown in different colours to make things easier, and the edges and fold lines are shown as black lines.


Fold the paper in half diagonally (corner to corner), and then unfold. Repeat with the other two corners. This is to find the middle and to make the rest of the folding easier. If the paper is thick or stiff it can help to reverse the folds.



Fold three of the corners in so that they meet in the middle. You now have a piece of paper resembling an open envelope. For the next two steps, ignore the flap.



Fold the square diagonally in two. You…

List love: A growing list of recommended books with elderly protagonists or significant elderly characters

I think it's about time I posted this, as I have been working on it for a couple of months.
I feel there isn’t enough fiction written about the elderly, or at least about the elderly as protagonists. The elderly in fiction tend to be supporting characters, often wise elders (such as  Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books) or cranky old neighbour types (e.g. the faculty of Unseen University in the Discworld series) or helpless oldsters (any number of books, especially children’s books) for the protagonist to either help or abuse (depending on whether they’re a hero or not).
Terry Pratchett has written several of my favourite elderly protagonists and they always kick ass in one way or another, so you will see several of his books on this list, either as listed items or ‘also’ mentions.
Without further ado: Here is a list of books with elderly protagonists or significant, important elderly characters. I leave it up to you to decide if you’re interested or not, but I certainly enjoyed…

Reading report for January 2014

Here it is, finally: the reading report for January. (February‘s report is in the works: I have it entered into Excel and I just need to transfer it into Word, edit the layout and write the preface. It will either take a couple of days or a couple of months).

I finished 26 books in January, although admittedly a number of them were novellas. As I mentioned in my previous post, I delved into a new(ish) type of genre: gay (or M/M) romance. I found everything from genuinely sweet romance to hardcore BDSM, in sub-genres like fantasy, suspense and mystery and even a quartet of entertaining (and unlikely) rock star romances. Other books I read in January include the highly enjoyable memoir of cooking doyenne Julia Child, two straight romances, and Jennifer Worth‘s trilogy of memoirs about her experiences as a midwife in a London slum in the 1950s. I also watched the first season of the TV series based on these books and may (I say 'may') write something about this when I have finis…