Friday, October 17, 2014

Know your facts, then distort 'em as you please

Random notes on Bill Bryson.

Bryson manages to be suspenseful and desultory at the same time, something not many thoughtful people would ever strive for. He relates the history of a certain common home feature—quite rivetting in the telling, actually--by first emphasizing the strange niche in his hallway wall, a niche clearly not part of the original house, because the object it was designed to hold did not exist in 1765. We don’t learn he’s talking about the telephone until many pages later, after the suspense has gotten heavy.

Then we turn to Alexander Graham Bell and his odd story, and then to his assistant Thomas Watson, and his even odder story, and then to the reason why Bell didn’t have his invention stolen from him by his competitors, as happened so often, and then how the telephone was designed, and then why there are letters on the dial, and so on. There is apparently no guiding principle at work, but a smoothness in segueing between nuggets of interest. In some cases there is not the faintest causal connection between his contiguities. There is danger in this, of course. One is led almost to infer a chain of causality from the the chain of events, as if the events actually unfolded in the order Bryson relates, and not the order he has chosen to enliven his story.

I have caught Bryson in some stretchers. In The Lost Continent, an account of his driving tour of America, in the section where he visited Philadelphia, he threw down scorn about the place that stood out in a book already wretched with it. He was describing the block in town that had been consecrated to the memory of Franklin—a section of Market Street, where Franklin’s old print shop still stands, and where the outline of his house, long since demolished, has been rendered in tubular steel. Almost every tourist in Philadelphia visits the place. There’s a museum devoted to Franklin there, and a Post Office that still handles mail, where Franklin’s signature forms the cancellation mark. That’s where he said he was, anyway. The problem was, he was describing Franklin Square, a rundown and derelict old square several blocks away, where the west end of the massive Benjamin Franklin Bridge comes to earth, and where weeds grow, and debris drifts, and a general air of abandonment and decay makes this the least congenial spot in Old City. Whether he knew he was in the wrong place or not is a good question. It makes the difference whether we should call him a fibber or just plain dense. In any event he did not concern himself to learn why, in a place where it was advertised he would find a museum, a print shop and a post office, he found only trash and desolation. Only very accomplished writers have this kind of privilege.