House of Lords

Why are some books "stickier" than others?

Their Noble Lordships by Simon Winchester

I am reading three non-fiction books. Do you share my habit of starting several books at the same time? I do not do this with novels. Either I get sucked into the plot and I read it exclusively to the end (sometimes staying up until the wee hours), or I set it aside. Non-fiction books are easier to put aside when my mood changes and then I find myself picking the book up again a few days later. Meanwhile I may have started another book or read a novel.

While I am part way into three books, I am "glued" to Simon Winchester's Their Noble Lordships.When it was first published it had the subtitle: Hereditary Peerage Today. Well, not today, today. It was written in the late 1970s and finally published in 1981. I am reading the 2012 revised edition with the subtitle: How to tell a Duke from an Earl and other mysteries solved.

Why am I so captivated?

1. It is like a highbrow gossip session. There are lots of stories about actual Dukes and Marquesses and other British peers, living and dead. This actually caused the delay in publication because while it is a factual presentation, some people still sued to stop the book being published.

2. It helps to make sense of some of the mysteries of British society that no amount of reading Jane Austen or watching Downton Abbey can solve for an American. At the same time, some customs associated with peers, such as precedence (who outranks whom) is still mysterioso even after reading several chapters related to the topic. I cannot keep all the titles straight especially when you add in military honors.

3. Simon Winchester is a damn good writer. Maybe you've read his history of the Oxford dictionary or Krakatoa. He knows how to tell a great non-fiction story.

I am thoroughly enjoying this book. Even though legislation was passed in 1999 to reform the House of Lords, no legislation can get abolish a class system. Even taxation schemes level the playing field imperceptibly between, say, the Duke of Westminster and a well paid professional Briton. Plus it is generally easier to examine the idiosyncrasies of human preference in a culture outside our own.

The bottom line is this book is "sticky" or hard to put down because it is well-paced, beautifully written and chock full of stories about real people.