December 31, 2009


A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. By Bill Bryson. Delacorte Press. $19.99.

The Century for Young People—Becoming Modern America: 1901-1936; Defining America: 1936-1961; Changing America: 1961-1999. By Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster. Delacorte Press. $9.99 each.

     Making big subjects understandable to young people is a big challenge. Making the biggest subject of all – literally everything – understandable is an even bigger challenge. Bill Bryson rises to it, for the most part delightfully, in A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. Originally published in Great Britain, the book lapses into Britishisms from time to time, but remains for the most part quite clear and understandable, even when dealing with subjects that are simply unimaginable: “By doing a lot of maths, scientists believe they can look back to one ten million trillion trillion trillionths of a second after its birth when the universe was so small that you would have needed a microscope to find it.” Bryson uses the knowledge of science to throw cold water on some favorite science-fictional concepts: “Based on what we know now, there’s absolutely no prospect that any human being will ever visit the edge of our own solar system.” In the main, though, he offers a tale of the wonders to be found right on Earth – and the wonderful ways in which people have explored, measured, discussed and argued about them. The trials and tribulations of scientists trying to weigh Earth – two of them being Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who later gave their names to the Mason-Dixon line – make fascinating reading. So do the arguments about the speed of geological change between the Catastrophists and the Uniformitarians. And the information that even today, Marie Curie’s papers are too dangerous to handle – because they were exposed to so much radiation for so long. Bryson does not shrink from difficult concepts, such as Einstein’s notion that “time is variable and ever-changing. It even has shape.” And he manages to explain difficult ideas with some very well-chosen images, as in his comment about the possibility of an asteroid hitting Earth: “Think of the Earth’s orbit as a kind of motorway on which we are the only vehicle, but which is crossed regularly by pedestrians who don’t look before stepping off the pavement.” From dinosaurs to bacteria, the hugeness of space to the microscopic world, Bryson offers a tour that is not only fascinating but also offbeat and quite thought-provoking: “It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it. The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years.”

     According to Peter Jennings and Todd Brewer in their 1998 book, The Century, 100 of the most important years of all were those of the 20th century – especially so in the United States. This is hyperbole, of course, but it does not make the three volumes for young readers derived from the Jennings-Brewer book (and originally published in 1999) any less interesting. Divided rather arbitrarily into periods based on the arguments that the authors want to make, the three books are fact-packed if less than stylish in presentation. For example, after the stock market crashed in 1929, “It was as if America had gone from a carefree summer into a freezing winter.” Jennings and Brewer are at their best when tossing out little bits of information with casual abandon, such as when they note (in discussing the rise of the automobile) that the first traffic light dates to 1922, the first shopping center to 1924 and the first public parking garage to 1929. The recollections by people who lived in and through specific events are also of considerable interest. For example, Junji Sarashina, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, recalls, “A lot of people were floating in the river; some were swimming, but some of them were dead, drifting with the current. Their skin was red and their clothes were nothing but strips of cloth hanging from them. …All night long we watched the town burn.” And decorated Vietnam veteran Larry Gwin says, “Any American soldier who went to Vietnam didn’t have to stay there long before he knew that there was something wrong with our presence there.” Jennings and Brewer clearly have a sociopolitical orientation that guides their choices of events on which to focus and people to include in their narrative; but for the most part, their skewing of matters is subtle rather than heavy-handed. Unfortunately, The Century for Young People is not especially good at giving context to the quotations from the people who speak from first-hand experience. Often a major, wrenching event gets short shrift: “The collapse of faith in American leadership and the defeat in Vietnam further undermined Americans’ self-confidence. People responded by turning inward and becoming more focused on themselves.” In all, the once-over-lightly approach of The Century for Young People merits a (+++) rating for clear writing and inclusion of people who actually experienced many of the important events of the 20th century; but these three books are far from the last word on that century, even from the limited perspective of the United States.

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