I started reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything a couple of years ago, and soon found myself hopelessly bogged down. More enticing books beckoned, and I put it aside.
It’s not that these books are not interesting, because they are absolutely chockers with fascinating facts and interesting information. Between the two of them, I feel like I’ve absorbed a fairly large amount of knowledge. No, after a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that the real problem is the lack of structure and narrative.
Both books start out with vague goals – it’s doesn’t come much more indefinite than a history of “nearly everything,” and you can’t get much more ambitious than attempting to nail down a whole country. Of the two, Bryson’s structure is more consistent throughout the book. Each chapter deals with a specific discipline and its history, such as geology, astronomy, and physics. David Gilmour on the other hand starts out by describing various aspects of contemporary Italy (which was utterly absorbing) and then jumps backwards and goes through the history of Italy in chronological order. His book picks up again towards the end, but the middle section dealing with events in the various kingdoms prior to unification is something of a hard slog. Of course, this may just reflect the fact that this was not a particularly interesting period of time (at least for non-Italians),
Because of the broad subject matter they are attempting to cover, these books don’t tend to go into deep analysis of their subject, although David Gilmour does make an effort in this direction towards the end. Both authors write well, with an informal tone that engages the reader. Bryson in particular has become so well know n that he could get away with a much lesser book, but I was impressed by the amount of research that he put in in order to explain difficult concepts in plain language. It must have been a monumental undertaking. David Gilmour’s book is similarly well-researched and unlike Bryson the author is familiar enough with his field to offer his own insights on some of the sources he cites.
I ended up taking these two books to the beach. They are not everyone’s definition of a beach read, but it turned out that they were perfect for the disjoined nature of summer reading. I would read a chapter, have a swim, come back and pick up where I left off. To extrapolate out, I think these books are best tackled in small chunks – to read from beginning to end is to ask for fact fatigue, when all the information starts to blur into a monotonous whole. These books deserve better than that, and if you make the effort they are truly rewarding reads.