Tuesday, December 18, 2012

London the Biography

Peter Ackroyd has been a favorite writer of mine for more than a decade.  He's as well-known for his fiction as his nonfiction, although neither of this is true unless you're British or appreciate literature and culture.  That is to say, Ackroyd is fairly obscure to American readers.

Until London the Biography, I hadn't gotten around to his nonfiction, although point-in-fact until the last few years I hadn't gotten around to reading anything besides The Plato Papers, which was a masterpiece that proved curiously divisive for critics.  London was actually Ackroyd's follow-up publication to Plato Papers, strictly for the record.

Basically, London the Biography is an oversized version of those regional books you'll find in local bookstores and sometimes museums, although it tackles one of the most significant cities of the past two thousand years.  Because many people have written about it in the past, Ackroyd's effort is both a synthesis of existing material and his own passionate ode.  It is not a strict chronicle, however, in case you were wondering.  Instead, as his preface makes clear, Ackroyd splits his subject into many different topics which explore the character of London from its many different vantage points.  At times this causes overlap in the material, and while one book cannot possibly hope to offer a complete representation of anything so vast a subject as a city that has its roots in Roman times, Ackroyd is about as comprehensive as you can get without being pedantic.

In fact, that's one thing that should be made clear.  London the Biography is not a textbook.  Ackroyd's alternating career as a novelist makes itself known.  He is a storyteller, and his chosen method of execution allows him to remain one throughout the book.  His expansive research reveals many interesting facets and characters even natives may not know about today, and if you choose to cherry-pick through such revelations, you will still find yourself with a worthwhile experience from the seven hundred sixty pages awaiting you.  Sometimes you'll wonder why he doesn't spend more time on some historical figure who instantly sounds like they could fill their own book and probably have, and then you look at the bulk of the book again and thank Ackroyd for simply referencing them.

It's his love for London that moves your reading along, and although Ackroyd can sometimes generalize and inflate the city's significance with thoughts that could and should more easily be more widely translated around England and indeed the whole world, you can forgive the sentiment, because his subject after all has endured and continues to be the center of a large population in its own right.

I read London the Biography because I love Peter Ackroyd, but really, it's London that I ended up loving.

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