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What I Think Book Review: Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography


If you've ever wondered why London is so consistently influential, then you need to first understand its history. Though it is anything but a quick read, Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography provides an incredible and sweeping look at London's long history that will keep you reading despite the seemingly overwhelming 900+ pages.

I've long been a fan of Ackroyd (his fiction is just as good as his non-fiction offerings), and I was delighted when I received this book for Christmas from my brother-in-law. (Thanks, Lyle!) At that time, I knew I was going to be in London (where I am now), so I figured it would be the perfect way for me to prepare for my upcoming field trip. 

Ackroyd doesn't just give the reader a dry review of London's past. Instead (and the title should be a clue here), he approaches the history as if London were a person, which makes for a much more interactive reading experience. He doesn't write in perfect chronological order, though the book does begin with the Stone Age inhabitants and ends with modern London. He may begin a chapter with a description of 17th century church bells, and then bring the sounds of London forward to more recent times. It is a unique approach--one that I've never encountered before--but it works. There were a few times when I was reading that I was so struck by the intricate weaving of past and present in the book that I wondered how in the world Ackroyd kept all of this information straight in his head while writing. 

All aspects of London's past are covered: the Roman Lundinium, the Anglo-Saxon Ludinwic, the origins of Cockney English, the sights and smells of Victorian London, and the terror and effects of World War II. He also includes sketches, paintings, photos and carvings to illustrate each period of time. 

I adore London, and I thought I was well-informed about its history, but after reading this book, I was surprised at how little I'd actually known. For any history-lovers or for an Angolophile, this book should be a must-read.