Excellent Bill Bryson as always. A snapshot look at what was happening in America in the summer of 1927. Of course, most of these events had backstory and aftermath that went beyond that summer, but nonetheless:
- The biggest story by far was Charles Lindbergh‘s crossing of the Atlantic. The event generated tons of enthusiasm; this was almost as big a deal and as incredible to imagine as the moon landing would be a generation later. But, what really may have made the most lasting impact was Lindbergh’s follow-up cross-country tour, where he appeared in parades and other events in different cities day after day. There was heavy press coverage; and reports of it taking him only a few hours by air to travel between cities which took a day or more by train caused interest and investment in aviation.
- A side note to the Lindbergh story is that of Charles Levine, one of his competitors to be the first across the Atlantic by plane. It’s almost a fable-like story: he (well, his plane the Columbia) probably would have been first if only Levine wasn’t such a big jerk. He had two pilots lined up for the flight but kicked one out at the last minute in favor of taking a spot for himself; this pilot got an injunction that stopped the flight for a week or more. Which is when Lindbergh took off.
- Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs playing for the 1927 Yankees, considered by many the best team ever. He was known as “Babe” because of his sheltered upbringing at a boys school/orphanage. Apparently he quickly lost the boyish innocence; he was a well known womanizer and drinker.
- President Coolidge spent the summer in South Dakota, modeling a fancy cowboy outfit. Also he participated in the kickoff for Mt. Rushmore. The creator, Gutzon Borglum, was an interesting fellow and a Mormon (or at least started out as one.)
- Prohibition was in full swing. I didn’t realize that the government intentionally poisoned “denatured” alcohol, an idea encouraged by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti Saloon League, so it wouldn’t be used for drinking – many thousands were killed anyway.
- The curious Van Sweringen brothers were building the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, a prototype of the modern shopping mall. They also invented the suburb in Shaker Heights. The Van Sweringens lost everything in the Great Depression.
- Error in the book! Said Philo Farnsworth went to “Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City”. It’s really in Provo, which no one outside of Utah would lump together with Salt Lake City.
- The advent of “talkie” movies = start of dominant American culture worldwide. Before this, many actors were immigrants – didn’t matter that they had an accent or couldn’t speak English well. Now, the movie star image around the world became totally American.
The mark of a good journalist is being able to simply explain difficult concepts. Bryson does so in an entertaining way in this history of science (similar ground covered by The Discoverers). I also liked Richard Matthews’ crisp British accent in this unabridged audiobook.
The flow was very good. Generally, it follows investigations into a few “big questions” that ultimately spawned entirely new scientific disciplines, or significant overhauls to existing ones: measuring the size of the Earth for astronomy and physics; estimating the age of the Earth for geology and biology.
One thing about science is that it is always changing. Plenty of examples in this book about theories which were widely accepted in their day, but a completely discredited today in favor of something else. This is good. But whenever the current “correct” theory is discussed, Bryson seems to treat it as fact when it is simply our current best guess. This is pretty excusable though — constantly harping on the uncertainties would cause the average reader to come away with more questions than “answers” … (but maybe that is good for science…)
The other takeaway is how seemingly vulnerable we are. As an example of the civilization and perhaps species-ending events which may occur at any time and without warning are: a powerful solar flare which rips away the ionosphere and irradiates all life on Earth; the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing and covering North America in several feet of ash and inducing a new ice age; a large asteroid striking the Earth with a similar effect.
Unofficial subtitle: “Bill Bryson Tells Us About All The Gross Stuff He Did as a Kid in 1950’s Iowa”
Not much to say really beyond the subtitle. It’s a (short) collection of Bryson’s humorous reminisces about growing up, as well as a look back on what life in middle America was like in the Fifties. At one point, Bryson nicely summed up the decade as one of “undiluted optimism and eager despair” — never before had standards of living risen so high so quickly for so many, but also never before had there existed the real possibility of total annihilation (from Soviet atomic weapons). Even still, people seemed fascinated by the new technology, just as they were by the newest model cars or new washing machines.
On that note, one of the more memorable accounts in the book was of the largest-ever atomic drill conducted in New York City, which took place in 1951. Everybody was expected to drop whatever they were doing and hasten to the nearest designated fallout shelter. Well almost everybody. The only citizens excepted were restaurant patrons and workers. It was thought that if customers were excused for an hour or so, very few would return to pay their bill!
Another note – Bill Bryson reads the audio version himself, and by golly he has a very strange accent! From Iowa, of course, but he moved to England in his 20’s and has lived there more or less since. So he has quite an odd British-American combo accent, I thought.