The Weekend Edition of The Wall Street Journal has a nice feature. A person with some expertise on a subject recommends five good books, fiction or non-fiction, worth reading that deal with it. The topics have been many and varied, broad or quite specific – coming of age, dysfunctional families, World War II in the Pacific, Civil War spies, mountain climbing, and natural disasters.
If I were asked to play this game, there’s a sort of book that I always find appealing, one that deals with a historical period through a narrow lens – a finite term of years that sums up a changing time, for instance. Or a group of like-minded people who epitomized an era, or even the story of a particular place that sums up a particular time.
In the people-sharing-an-era category are books like “The Years with Ross” about the Algonquin Round Table heyday of “The New Yorker” magazine. Another great volume that overlaps this is “Harpo Speaks,” the endearing autobiography of the silent Marx brother which takes him from his vaudeville years through Broadway in the ‘20s to Hollywood in the ‘30s and beyond.
Fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have several books about their donnish circle, The Inklings, to look forward to. For a time it seemed there was a book a week about either the Bloomsbury Group in England or the expats in Paris in the ‘20s, the most charming of which may be “Shakespeare and Company” by Sylvia Beach. And of course there are many interesting takes on the intersecting lives of the founding fathers – like “Miracle at Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen and “The Men who Made the Nation” by John Dos Passos.
Turning-point books include “The Guns of August” about the hapless descent of Europe into World War I, “Return to Dragon Mountain” by Jonathan Spence which captures the fall of the Ming Dynasty through one man’s experience, and one I’ve just read called “The Vertigo Years” by Phillipp Blom. It concerns the years from the death of Victoria to the start of the Great War. It is told in chapters, one for every year between 1900 and 1914, but it is not a simple chronology.
Rather, each chapter begins with an event of that year and then goes on to discuss the subject it raises as it ramifies during the era. So a revelation of the barbarity practiced by Belgium in the Congo leads on to a larger picture of colonial myth and reality in this period. Other chapters focus on topics like the women’s suffrage movement, eugenics, the birth of scientific criminology, and the arrival of planes, autos and the cinema. Freud in Vienna leads to a discussion of the era’s changing sexual mores. Marie Curie in Paris provides the entrée to a look at the changing conception of physical reality in those years.
In a similar vein, there have been numerous best-selling books that have zoomed in on a single momentous year with simple names like 1491, 1776, 1848, 1914, 1968. I admit to a weak spot for similar books that widen the lens a bit to take in a fascinating place at an important moment – Augustan Rome, the Florence of the Medici, Elizabeth’s London. One of the best is “The Ornament of the World” by Maria Rosa Merocal which describes the glorious flowering of Al-Andalus when, for a few brief centuries, Muslims, Christians and Jews produced a Golden Age of learning, tolerance and beauty.
My shelves also contain several entertaining histories by Otto Friedrich, each of which treats a moment when a single city became emblematic of its era. “Before the Deluge” is a portrait of Weimar Berlin before the Nazis took power. “City of Nets” describes Hollywood in the 1940s when film stars, fleeing European intellectuals and artists all shared a space – Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Brecht and Mann, Scott Fitzgerald, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Walt Disney and the House Un-American Activities Committee. “Olympia” paints the Parisian scene at the time of the Impressionists.
Last but far from least is a remarkable book that centers its portrait of an age on an address – the house on the corner of Silver and Monkwell Streets, Cripplegate, London, 1603-1612. Why is this interesting? Because it was the London address for a least a decade of “The Lodger Shakespeare,” a wonderfully rich book by Charles Nicholl.
In it he accomplishes prodigies of research and historical deduction, mining archives, maps and surveys, court records, parish records, tax records to reconstruct Jacobean London and the neighborhood where the great man lodged and wrote, attended church and rubbed shoulders with goldsmiths, barber-surgeons, herbalists, innkeepers, weavers and costumers and wig makers, just to name a few.
Thanks to Nicholl’s minute combing of the records, we see Shakespeare’s street, his house, his room, the drama of his landlord’s family, the places he would have dined and the kind of people he would have passed on his way to the theater. This is history and biography at street level, and a marvel of revivification.