Bill Bryson, Louise Penny, E-readers and Jane Austen

Made in America by Bill Bryson

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a lothario – an excellent ‘natural philosopher’ and a successful businessman of course but a regular lothario as well?

Or that a doctor was called a ‘pisspot’ and a footman a ‘fartcatcher’ in the eighteenth century?

Made in America is my first introduction to Bill Bryson. Truth be told it’s not even my copy – my husband got it for himself but I called dibs on it as soon as I saw it having heard such praises for Mr. Bryson from Mr. Husband. My morning commute is now devoted to Made in America and I have been progressing more or less at the rate of a chapter a day.

Made in America is an exploration of the origins and oddities of American English. As Mr. Bryson points out in his introduction, these explorations would be incomplete without the historical context that led to the genesis of these words and phrases, and indeed the historical anecdotes that surround the word in question and that form such an integral part of Mr. Bryson’s storytelling makes the book a fascinating read.

If I were to think of it I would assume history to be portentous, eliciting a sort of awe and bemusement. I would certainly not expect it to have an everyday-ordinariness. Or imagine that the origin-of-all-things (ok, words in this case) could have funny overtones to it. But that is precisely the feeling that I get reading Mr. Bryson. He has a gift for taking what one would assume would be banal and boring and making it interesting and fun.

For instance, did you know that the constitution of the United States of America owes its existence to the Oyster Wars – yes, a war between fishermen over the shell-shaped, staid-looking creature? Or that we can give thanks for Daylight Savings Time to a businessman who really just wanted more hours for playing golf?

This is my first time reading any sort of historical non-fiction and I am wondering how much of my enjoyment stems from the actual history and how much from Mr. Bryson’s skills as a writer.

With a keen eye for adjectives, Mr. Bryson seems to be a virtuoso at using simple, ordinary words to paint highly vivid and at times amusing images.

On the early colonists borrowing words from the Indians: “Most Indian terms, however, were not so amenable to simple transliteration. Many had to be brusquely and repeatedly pummelled into shape, like a recalcitrant pillow, before any English speaker could feel comfortable with them.”

On American English slowly assuming its own identity: “Partly from the lack of daily contact with the British, partly from conditions peculiar to American life, and partly perhaps from whim, American English soon began wandering off in new directions.”

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The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery, the latest in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec series, is the other book I’m currently busy with. This is my first introduction to Louise Penny and to crime fiction in general (my only other foray in recent times was The Faithful Place by Tana French – a novel I liked).

As with Miss French I find myself fascinated more with the characters than the plot. Indeed I have a suspicion that Miss Penny means it to be so. The Chief Inspector’s claim that a murder is really just the tipping point – a culmination of the thousands of small hurts and disagreements that began much earlier than the actual act of murder – makes me even more interested in the characters – who they are, their motivations, their ambitions – than in the plot that is unfolding.

I am inclined to think that in learning more about the individual, I will come to know more about the murder. Or that is what Miss Penny seems to be nudging me to think!

Update Feb 1, 2013: I’m now half-way through the book and the plot is thickening; the characters are more fleshed out; the fog around enimities and back-stories is slowly dissolving. In all, the book is becoming un-putdownable!

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The Argument for Books— ‘Heavy, Smelly, Cumbersome, Perfect Bound Books’ –  pushes across a point that at times seems to me a big justification for physical books – that “Books are a nexus”. Reading is a solitary experience and the advent of e-readers has made it more so. “Heavy, smelly, cumbersome books” through book stores and libraries and the passing of one copy from one generation to another makes the reading experience more communal.

I love and enjoy my Kindle hugely; however, I am NOT in favour of a completely paperless world. I see value in having BOTH paper and e-books and I most certainly do not want e-books to obliterate paper books.

I also wonder at the slightly fanatical tone that seems to tinge both the camps in any discussion on this issue.

I’m also thinking about Litlove’s recent comment that, “The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading.”

What do you think?

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In other news, 28th January was the 200th birthday of Pride & Prejudice!

Here’s a great article in LA Review: Pride & Prejudice Forever – I am tempted to look up the Patricia Meyer Spacks edition. I would love a critical reading of Pride & Prejudice with an understanding of the historical and political context in which Jane Austen wrote it.

And if you haven’t  yet you should check out The Lizze Bennet Diaries once. They’re fun!