Bill Bryson is a travel writer who can educate and inspire but also make you choke on your coffee with bursts of laughter. His kind of humour just tickles my funny bone and I end up annoying people who are around me when I’m reading. So ironically I actually avoid his books when I’m travelling on trains or airplanes, because of the curious looks I get when I snort and snigger. He is also very impressively knowledgeable and an absolute King of Trivia. There is a wealth of information in his books about so many things that you would never have known before and will likely never need to know again…but it’s all so interesting!
Recently I reread two of his travel books because I went to Australia and decided to reread his book “In a Sunburned Country” (‘Down Under’ UK title). Bryson’s travel books are far more enjoyable to read upon your return when you can understand the jokes. When you travel to a place, take along a Frommer, Lonely Planet, or DK guide to show you where to go and what to see. Then enjoy Bryson’s anecdotal account when you get back and you can relive your trip with his entertaining commentary. However, it is a bit of a toss up because it might be nice to know some of his facts when visiting a place.
When I moved to England in 2010, a friend gave me ‘Notes from a Small Island’ (as well as a teacup and a brolly….smart friend!), which I decided to wait to reread until I had lived here for two years. That was the right thing to do. I was rewarded with the enjoyment of a lengthy couple of chapters on the Windsor/London/Virginia Water area where I live, and could now knowledgeably chuckle along and nod my head about things like sticky toffee pudding, Marmite, zebra crossings and relief roads, and actually know what he was talking about. My biggest hurdle is still the pants/trousers thing. Pants are undergarments here, like knickers, and trousers are what I would call pants. Can’t seem to get the hang of that one yet, but give me another couple of years and I just might.
‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is a science book for non-scientists, for everyman who is interested in the science of the earth, space and time. Only get this book in its lavishly illustrated edition and let it find its place on your coffee table or in your restroom reading rack. He has other travel books on America, a book about Shakespeare, and even a biographical account of his childhood years in Iowa called ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’. At Home is a great historical account of private life and how we have gotten ourselves comfortable over the centuries. In it he uses the rooms of a house as an outline to describe how everything from the flush toilet to household electricity came to be. Bryson is American but moved to England because he married a Brit. They have lived in both places. He has two websites, one based in each country.
This is my favourite and in my opinion is the funniest of the travel books. He hikes the Appalachian trail with his fat friend Stephen Katz. They get into all sorts of troubles while backpacking and trying to survive, including running into bears and rednecks.
Bryson points out that 80% of all the plants and animals that live in Australia, exist nowhere else on earth. This may be part of the reason it is such a unique and interesting place. The place names in Australia are also amazing, if you could learn to pronounce them. We stayed in a suburb of Sydney called Wooloomooloo – where else can you find a word sporting no less than 8 o’s?!? Incidentally, it is a wharf area within walking distance of Sydney’s main attractions, recently revitalized with trendy restaurants and boutique hotels. It used to be a navy slum with nothing but drunks, sailors, and drunk sailors. Bryson was very afraid of all the poisonous snake and spider species on this island continent – a disproportionately high amount, in his opinion. We did stay in a mountain resort where the guests were advised not to walk barefoot in the grass at night!
This is an affectionate portrayal of Britain. Since Bryson has lived for many years in the UK, he knows it from the inside out. He clearly loves the place and its people and captures subtle nuance in the British personality. Americans are fascinated by Great Britain because it is both alien and familiar. Many have traced their origins to the place, and because the language is the same, well nearly, it is an easy place to visit and move around in. And there is so much history – the moss and stones practically ooze the ages. One reviewer said this and I think it is true. “Bryson is not entirely uncritical of his adopted nation (and that’s the fun part), but he’s never nasty – and it’s plain that his enthusiasm for England and all things English comes from deep in his heart.”