Well, over the past few months, I’ve become an unequivocal Witold Rybczynski superfan.
This all started after I picked up one of Witold’s books, The Most Beautiful House in the World, from the local library. I’d read his architecture criticism at Slate before, and I knew he was a renowned professor, but none of it quite prepared me for the spectacular nature of his long-form writing.
The Most Beautiful House in the World was ostensibly about the construction of Witold’s house outside Montreal, but it quickly became a considered reflection on the craft of architecture and the qualities of a good home. Witold had a clear, measured voice, and he wove a wealth of thoughtful historical detail throughout his book. Let’s put it this way: reaching the end of the book was like finishing a long, rich conversation with an old, dear friend. And it was bloody nonfiction!
The next step was obvious. I had to reserve and read all of his books as soon as possible—and I did, much to my delight. It turns out Witold dives into topics that seem wholly abstract, but pulls them to earth in a way that is fascinating and wise and illuminating all at once. Home: A Short History of an Idea looked at how we had developed the concept of the private home reserved for family. Waiting for the Weekend examined how we developed the concept of the weekend and our sense of leisure time. City Life looked at how the American city came to be the way it was. The list goes on, and on.
One more thing, however, makes Witold’s writing so riveting—and it’s that his style is a sharp and invigorating contrast to a lot of nonfiction you find today. Malcolm Gladwell’s influence on the form has made some people dive into fascinating subjects but come up with very little to say. But Witold plumbs subjects with scholarly intelligence that remains approachable. He’s not trying to be breezy, he’s not aiming to thrill you with laboriously tortured narratives, and he’s not trying to tie a bunch of disparate concepts and events into a unified theory that secretly runs the universe. He’s more like a tour guide for this world, writing to help us understand where we are and where we’ve come from. There’s substance and wisdom there. I’m hooked.