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Peter Ackroyd (1949-) - Sidelights

review time book series

Sir Peter Ackroyd is a British man of letters best known for his penetrating biographies and stylized intellectual fiction for adults. Since 1986 Ackroyd has been the chief book reviewer for the London Times while turning out award-winning volumes of his own at a remarkable pace. His novel for adults, Hawksmoor, won the prestigious Whitbread award for fiction, one of many formal accolades he has received over the years. In 2003 Ackroyd was named a Commander of the British Empire, the modern-day equivalent of knighthood. An essayist for the British Council of Contemporary Writers Web site identified the author as "one of Britain's leading literary biographers . . . a prolific reviewer, poet and critical theorist." The same essayist went on to note that the abundance of Ackroyd's published work "speaks in itself of the varied nature of his achievements."

Only recently has Ackroyd begun writing for children. In a career spanning more than thirty years, he never published a children's book until 2003. During that year, the London firm Dorling Kindersley announced that Ackroyd would write not one, but a whole series of books for young adults on the profound subject of the history of the world. With ten titles planned, the "Voyages through Time" series promises to introduce Ackroyd to generations of readers who are perhaps not yet ready for his adult body of work. In an online feature for The Independent, Dina Rabinovitch maintained that the writer is "not previously best known for breaking up his dense, allusive texts with pictures and brightly coloured diagrams. . . . And yet here is Ackroyd taking on a limitless brief: the story of the world. It runs counter to everything one knows of him as a writer."

Ackroyd learned to read at the age of two, and by the time he became an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he was already writing poetry and essays. While still in his twenties he became a published poet and critic. His adult books, if it is fair to generalize, exercise his consuming interest in English literature and its important practitioners, including Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, William Blake, St. Thomas More, John Milton, and Thomas Chatterton. His first novel, The Great Fire of London, revolves around a fictitious film production of Dickens's work Little Dorritt. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde is a novel by Ackroyd written as if it were an autobiography of the flamboyant Victorian-era playwright. Chatterton likewise involves a fictitious autobiographical document suggesting that Chatterton, a seventeenth-century poet, did not end his own life in 1770. The Whitbread Award-winning Hawksmoor is a murder mystery set in eighteenth century London and featuring actual historical characters such as Nicholas Dyer and Christopher Wren. Newsweek contributor Peter S. Prescott called Hawksmoor "a fascinating hybrid, a tale of terrors that does double duty as a novel of ideas."

The publication of a new biography by Ackroyd has become something of an event in England. His second biography, T. S. Eliot: A Life, won a Whitbread biography award and was particularly praised because Ackroyd was forbidden by the late poet's estate to quote from Eliot's correspondence and unpublished verse. Blake gives a reasoned assessment of an often misunderstood English poet who claimed to converse with angels and demons, and Dickens explores the famous Victorian novelist by way of an imaginative reconstruction of his milieu. Ackroyd has also written a biography of Thomas More, an author and statesman who was beheaded for his opposition to the second marriage of King Henry The details of space exploration, begun just sixty years after the first flight, and biographical portraits of notable astronauts and scientists are presented by Ackroyd in a title from his "Voyages through Time" series. VIII. A Kirkus Reviews critic called The Life of Thomas More a "limpidly written and superbly wrought portrait of a complex hero."

An editor at Dorling Kindersley approached Ackroyd about taking on the "Voyages through Time" series. The scope of the project might be daunting to the most seasoned children's nonfiction writer: a history of the earth from its creation as a planet to its present-day complexity, both in biodiversity and technology. The first two volumes, The Beginning and Escape from Earth are in some respects the alpha and omega of the series. The Beginning charts earth history from the Big Bang to the first emergence of our species, Homo sapiens. Escape from Earth examines air and space travel and the modern means of studying the universe with space telescopes, unmanned spaceships, and satellites. Courtney Lewis in School Library Journal noted that Ackroyd's text in The Beginning does not talk down to youngsters, and the book is "simply and beautifully laid out." Booklist reviewer Jennifer Mattson praised The Beginning for providing "a broader view . . . than is normally transmitted." Mattson also called the work "an indispensable resource" for those students with an interest in prehistory. Carolyn Phelan in Booklist commended Escape from Earth for its "fine balance of technology and humanity."

In his interview with The Independent, Ackroyd estimated that he writes about 1,500 words per day. He Commencing with the first age of the world, the Hadean, Ackroyd's informational book explores the extraordinary development of the Earth's wildlife and the advent of human life. usually has several projects running simultaneously, and he noted that for his "Voyages through Time" series he has read dozens of books for each volume he has produced. He said that he agreed to do the series as a contribution to children's education. "I have a sense of the importance of history in the minds of the young," he observed. "The little I can do, is the best I can do. It's just a book, but if you can help just one child learn, or be interested in reading, then it's worth it."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 34, 1985, Volume 52, 1989, Volume 140, 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 155: Twentieth-Century Literary Biographers, 1995, Volume 231: British Novelists since 1960, 2001.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, December 15, 2003, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Beginning, p. 749; May 1, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of Escape from Earth, p. 1554.

English Review, April, 2003, Victoria Kingston, "Face to Face: Victoria Kingston Interviews Acclaimed Novelist and Biographer, Peter Ackroyd," p. 21.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, review of The Life of Thomas More; December 1, 1999, review of The Plato Papers, p. 1824.

Newsweek, November 26, 1984; February 24, 1986, Peter S. Prescott, review of Hawksmoor.

New York Times, November 9, 1992, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "An Entertainment for the Library"; August 21, 1995, Richard Bernstein, "The Limehouse Killings and Much, Much More."

New York Times Book Review, December 16, 1984; January 19, 1986; January 17, 1988; January 13, 1991, pp. 1, 24; October 11, 1992, Alison Lurie, "Hanging out with Hogarth," p. 7; April 16, 1995, p. 7; April 14, 1996, Penelope Fitzgerald, "Innocence and Experience," p. 44; October 25, 1998, Andrew Sullivan, "Public Man, Public Faith"; February 6, 2000, John Sutherland, "After Mouldwarp," p. 7.

New York Times Magazine, December 22, 1991, pp. 27-36.

Publishers Weekly, October 27, 2003, review of The Beginning, p. 71; March 8, 2004, "For Aspiring Scientists," p. 77.

School Library Journal, January, 2004, Courtney Lewis, review of The Beginning, p. 138.

Sunday Times (London), September 28, 2003, "Children's Book of the Week," p. 54.

ONLINE

British Council of Contemporary Writers, http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (June 2, 2004), "Peter Ackroyd."

Dorling Kindersley, http://cn.dk.com/ (June 2, 2004), information on "Voyages through Time."

Edutaining Kids, http://www.edutainingkids.com/ (June 2, 2004), review of The Beginning.

Independent Online, http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/ (June 2, 2004), Dina Rabinovitch, "Peter Ackroyd: Captain of the Time Machine."*

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