This blog has been stagnant for over a year now. I’m getting to the point where I’d like to revive it. Unfortunately I haven’t written anything in a while, so until I get back up to speed the quality of my writing will be shaky. I plan to start off by finishing some half-written reviews of books I read weeks or months ago, of which this is the first.
The Ties That Bound by Barbara Hanawalt describes the lives and environment of English peasants during (mostly) the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. (I wish I could come up with a snappy opening line, but I haven’t tried to review a book, or write anything at all, in ages, and the gears have rusted.)
Social history is the kind of history I’ve found most interesting lately. Unfortunately as social history goes further back in time primary sources can get a little sparse. Not a lot of 14th century English peasants left diaries.
So The Ties That Bound relies on archaeology to detail living environments, then turns to legal documents and other less direct sources to explore family structure, life stages, and social ties. Its particular focus is on coroner’s inquests. Accidental deaths, it turns out, were well documented on all levels of society. Inquests supply not only details of peasant life but also the names of people who would have been unremembered by history had they not inadvertently stabbed themselves or fallen off haystacks. After a while you expect every anecdote to end in tragedy, giving The Ties That Bound undertones of Edward Gorey–The Ghastlycrumb Peasantry, maybe–as Hanawalt occasionally acknowledges: “While ditches may have been created chiefly for drainage, they served a variety of functions, aside from indirectly reducing population.”
Not that this is a snarkfest. The Ties That Bound is written in the best academic style: not overly technical, but not working too hard to avoid dryness or difficulty. Historians trust that the information they’ve gathered will hold the reader’s interest. It is, after all, the reason the reader picked up the book.
Which brings me to another social history I read around the same time, Bill Bryson’s At Home. This purports to be a history of the home in England over the last few centuries. It has a serious case of attention deficit disorder.
The way Bryson organizes At Home is promisingly clever. Each chapter is a room in a house–“The Kitchen,” “The Drawing Room.” Rooms are how we organize domestic life; pattern a history of domestic life after a house and the history almost falls into order by itself. You would think.
But At Home is all over the place. Half the Drawing Room chapter is taken up with mini-biographies of eccentric 18th century celebrity architects. “The Passage” is mostly a history of the Eiffel Tower. “The Dressing Room” focuses not on the wardrobes of the vast bulk of the English population, but on Beau Brummel. Bryson begins “The Cellar” with the Erie Canal, explaining “The reason I have prefaced it all with the story of the Erie Canal is to make the point that building materials are more important and even, dare I say, interesting than you might think.” But wouldn’t the quickest way to convince readers that building materials are interesting be to actually write about them, interestingly?
Well, sure. I mean, I must be open to the idea that building materials can be interesting, or I wouldn’t have picked up a book named after and organized around a kind of building. But Bryson, having chosen as his topic the history of the home in England, displays no faith in its ability to hold the readers’ interest. So At Home prioritizes pithy celebrity biographies–the more eccentric the better–over describing how people lived. Celebrities left more documentation, after all, and making grotesques entertaining doesn’t take much effort. And the Erie Canal, as a large, singular, and significant project, is just naturally more memorable than a cellar.
Every so often At Home walks up to its ostensible subject and touches it, gingerly, and for a moment it’s interesting. One section on the architectural and engineering principles behind stairways–more complex than you’d think–manages to make stairs compelling. But then At Home backs off again, running to the safety of another colorful anecdote, too afraid of boring the reader to focus for long on its core subject. At Home is like a software manual that gives bios of the people who programmed the software, and tells funny stories about things that happened while they were programming it, but only as an afterthought gets around to telling you how the program is supposed to work.
Here’s why I bothered to write up this rambling rant about two apparently random books: At Home is not alone. I’m bored with popular nonfiction, the kind that makes the bestseller lists, in general. Whatever the subject–history, psychology, sociology, biology–the tone is the same: light, breezy, and depthless.
Popular books on academic subjects–science, history, whatever–fall into a few types. One kind is padded with mini-biographies of scientists or archaeologists or historians, descriptions of their appearance and minor eccentricities, and stories about how the pop-nonfiction writer met them in their offices. You also get anecdotes about the author’s travels to historic sites, or visits to businesses, nonprofits, government offices, and other slightly relevant institutions. Whatever actual information these books contain sometimes seems structured around the stories–introduced by and organized around them–rather than the other way around. The information may take up more space, but it feels secondary.
Pop psychology and sociology gravitate to a style pioneered by Malcolm Gladwell: The author begins every chapter with a colorful (and often familiar) anecdote, preferably involving a celebrity. The chapter goes on to cite a series of psychological, sociological, or economic studies centered around a theme taken from the anecdote. These are always presented without context that might help us evaluate them. (Were the results replicated? How did other scholars respond? Who knows?) The chapter ends by finishing the anecdote in a way that sums up the chapter’s theme.
And then there’s the kind of pop nonfiction exemplified by At Home: the quirky kind. At Home approaches every subject by looking for the oddest details and most colorful characters and focusing its attention there, sometimes pushing the original topic to the side, like an artist who sets out to draw a portrait but ends up filling most of the paper with one weirdly shaped nostril.
Most of these books seem to be written by journalists rather than scholars. What these kinds of pop nonfiction books have in common is a journalistic feature-article writing style that they’re taking places it wasn’t meant to go. Every subject, even if it must be awkwardly mashed and folded to fit, becomes a human interest story.
Which betrays a narrow view of what humans might be interested in. More seriously, the human interest approach to history illuminates less about human lives than academic writing.
Compare At Home to The Ties That Bound. In the “What We Can Remember” version of history the image conjured by the word “peasant” is an illiterate rustic prodding dirt with a stick. Standard pop culture peasants live packed into hovels, start breeding in their teens, have few ambitions and are given no way to pursue any that might exist. In fact, The Ties That Bound finds English peasants–both men and women–who made wills and contracts, joined guilds, and bought and sold rights to farm land. They both farmed and ran businesses on the side. When land was scarce adults didn’t necessarily marry until their late twenties. Throughout the book The Ties That Bound argues that these people, although their lives were not like ours, were more active and recognizable than we tend to think.
At Home argues… not much. Bryson sums up 700 pages of anecdotal meanderings with the observation that, over the last few centuries, some things have changed and some haven’t. How about that? He then notes that contemporary civilization uses a lot of energy; that there is massive inequality between the UK, the subject of his book, and the developing nations At Home hasn’t mentioned at all; and that maybe in future both of these will change. The first point is inane. The other points are non-sequiturs. At Home is a book without a central thesis. It tells stories, but those stories don’t add up to an argument. At Home has nothing in particular to say.
Quirky, breezy books like At Home portray history as a collection of discrete stories with strong plots and extraordinary characters… but real life is weird and complicated and not like a story at all. In a way, the books that emphasize detailed research, well-organized evidence, and a strong central argument before narrative wind up telling better stories than human-interest-style nonfiction. They have two things that improve any story: a sense of genuine curiosity, and a point of view.