I’ve been working through this book for the past two and a half weeks, and to be quite frank I read 75% of the book in three days. Why did it take so long for me to get into it?
I think there are a couple reasons. One, it is non-fiction so it takes a bit more focus on my part, especially when dealing with the Habsburg decades of rule, hence I can’t skim pages. True, Simon Winder makes clear that he is choosing to focus on a handful of monarchs instead of drowning the reader with names and titles spanning over multiple centuries. That I could appreciate. Nonetheless the reader must focus on each phrase to make sure that you don’t miss a key name-drop of a person and then get lost for the next 10 pages (I think this is what happened to the first 25% of the book and the reason it put me off a bit.)
What could have made this book so much easier to read is to have photos of the main monarchs discussed. Aside from a couple of maps at the beginning and the blurry pictures at the beginning of every chapter, the book lacked visual images to compliment the writing. There are several very strong paragraphs by him, that have me really intrigued, yet when he’s discussing artists instead of trying to describe a painting or place for a few pages, he could have just put in a photo.
The biggest reason why it took me so long to get into this was also because I had juxtaposed it with the brilliant One Summer in America 1927 by Bill Bryson. And to be honest, he is no Bill Bryson. This is not to say that it was a boring, draining read. Not at all. And the author did try to add some unconventional person touches into the book to make it lighter, like this passage:
“I realize with a chill that this section could go on almost indefinitely and it would be possible to bludgeon the reader with items from page to page of my notes, which should perhaps just be quietly binned.” (456)
I did really enjoyed the topic, and it was such a relief to come across a book about central Europe instead of always reading about WWI, WWII, French, British and American history. Certainly, I will go further with this, and there are several intriguing characters that I would like to spend some time reading up on thanks to this book.
Verdict: I can’t think of a better book for central European history in English as this, however, not as awestruck as I was with Bill Bryson’s non-fiction writing.