Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Bill Bryson--Highly Recommended

Here's a break from the political yada yada...

Over the last couple of months I've had the chance to read four of Bill Bryson's books: A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods, Neither Here Nor There, and Notes from a Small Island. Why read four books by one rather unknown author? Good question--let's see about some answers...

A Short History

The concept behind this book is that Bill Bryson one day realised how little he knew about the fundamental scientific principles that shape everything. His solution was to get in touch with as many experts as he could, get them to explain their body of work, supplement this with some historical research and then write an hilarious book that helpfully relates what he learned. His timeline is organised chronologically and moves smoothly from the Big Bang to human evolution.

The writing is Bryson's usual laugh-out-loud funny but what makes this book so noteworthy is that it gives very informative insights into the scientific subjects that are so far from Bryson's usual travel writing. In this book he accomplishes the rare feat of educating and entertaining. I'm sure that specialists in specific scientific fields will be able to point to what they consider egregious errors but that really is besides the point. Though admittedly general this book is so well-written and researched that it is one every non-science type should make time for.
A Walk in the Woods

After reading Short History I was impressed enough with Bryson to do some research into the rest of his work. Turns out that he's a writer of travelogues. Extremely funny travelogues. Of the travel-themed Bryson books I've read this is definitely the pinnacle.

In Walk Bryson decides that he is going to conquer the giant Appalachian Trail, on foot, accompanied by his overweight, addiction-troubled, high school buddy Katz, who incidentally he hasn't seen since their post-graduation tour of Europe. I won't ruin any of the hilarious jokes by describing how foolish an endeavour this was but suffice it to say that at least it was funny.

This book is troubled by the same third quarter disease of his other travel works (see below) but at least his cause is one I could relate to, the preservation of natural wilderness hiking environments, and he manages to conclude on the same funny note he started with.
Small Island and Here Nor There

I've grouped these books together because they were the last two I read and, moreover, because they are so damned similar. While in Small Island Bryson tours England, Wales, and Scotland by foot, bus, or train he does pretty much the same for continental Europe in Here Nor There.

I guess here I should get around to mentioning that Bryson was born and raised in the US but moved to the UK in his mid-twenties and had worked there for two decades before moving back to the States. I don't know what part of this culture heritage (or perhaps his age) caused the subtle xenophobic tone of these two works. In both he seems to find it easier to complain about the lack of familiar comforts than to appreciate the local colour. He also has a tendency to spend much of his time (at least as he writes it) searching for places to get himself drunk. And not the sort of young, world-may-care drunk we expect of someone in Paris or Rome but the surly, depressing drunk more appropriate for someone pushing fifty traipsing across foreign countries without his family.

As alluded to above after about the halfway his funny engine runs out of gas and the writing is propelled by either a mostly annoying cause he wants us to join (please won't you help save England's quaint coastal resort towns) or just a morose desire to be home. It would seem to me that this sort of intense homesickness would be one of the few disqualifying qualities for a travel writer. I guess not.

Don't get me wrong, both of these books have extremely funny parts to them--especially when is recalling the times he and Katz had touring Europe as teenagers. I guess I would have been considerably more satisfied with these two if I had read them before his much better, and more recent, offerings.

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