Renewing my Visa with Bill Bryson

I renewed my visa today, so I'm allowed to live in Japan for another three years. I'd applied for the renewal three weeks ago, and about a week or so ago, got the “come in and pick it up” postcard. I went today, bought 10,000 yen (US$85) worth of revenue stamps at the little shop around the corner, submitted the stamps, the postcard, and my passport (and with a bit of help from the kind, helpful man at the counter, the application for a multiple re-entry permit), and sat down to wait.

Unfortunately, it was ready soon and I was out in less than five minutes. I say “unfortunately” because I'd brought along a treat for the wait: a book by Bill Bryson.

It doesn't really matter what book it is — if Bill Bryson wrote it, it's got to be great. This man could write about wiping the dust from paintings at a museum, and it would be riveting, entertaining, and informative all at the same time. Or, to make a more realistic analogy, he could write about walking the Appalachian Trail — I can scarcely think of a more boring subject — but with his writing, it would be a riveting, entertaining, though-provoking, witty, wonderful book that's a joy to read.

Anyway, the particular book I had today is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir, which I recently received from my folks for my birthday.

Here's a taste... the first four paragraphs of the book:

In the late 1950s, the Royal Canadian Air Force produced a booklet on isometrics, a form of exercise that enjoyed a short but devoted vogue with my father. The idea of isometrics was that you used any unyielding object, like a tree or a wall, and pressed against it with all your might from various positions to tone and strengthen different groups of muscles. Since everybody already has access to trees and walls, you didn't need to invest in a lot of costly equipment, which I expect was what attracted my dad.

What made it unfortunate in my father's case is that he would do his isometrics on airplanes. At some point in every flight, he would stroll back to the galley area or the space by the emergency exit and, taking up the posture of someone trying to budge a very heavy piece of machinery, he would begin to push with his back or shoulder against the outer wall of the plane, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths before returning with quiet grunts to the task.

Since it look uncannily, if unfathomably, as if he were trying to force a hole in the side of the plane, this naturally drew attention. Businessmen in nearby seats would stare over the tops of their glasses. A stewardess would pop her head out of the galley and likewise stare, but with a certain hard caution, as if remembering some aspect of her training that she had not previously been called upon to implement.

Seeing that he had observers, my father would straighten up and smile genially and begin to outline the engaging principles behind isometrics. Then he would give a demonstration to an audience that swiftly consisted of no one. He seemed curiously incapable of feeling embarrassment in such situations, but that was all right because I felt enough for both of us — indeed, enough for us and all the other passengers, the airline and its employees, and the whole of whatever state we were flying over.

He goes on and talks about all kinds of things from his youth, about everything and about nothing at all. None of it is intersrting, yet it's all extremely interesting to read. I can't possibly explain it because I don't understand it. It just is.

Eventually, he gets to Chapter 2. Here's Chapter 2's first paragraph:

So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly. One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly. In fact, because time moves more slowly in Kid World — five times more slowly in a classroom on a hot afternoon, eight times more slowly on any car journey of more than five miles (rising to eighty-six times more slowly when driving across Nebraska or Pennsylvania lengthwise), and so slowly during the last week before birthdays, Christmases, and summer vacations as to be functionally immeasurable — it goes on for decades when measured in adult terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling.

So, a kid has a lot of time (especially a kid growing up in the relative innocence of the 50s, in rural middle-class Utah). Days were long and he, like all kids, spent them doing kid things, and he writes in a way sure to evoke the reader's own memories:

I knew how to get between any two properties in the neighborhood, however tall the fence or impenetrable the hedge that separated them. I knew the cool feel of linoleum on bare skin and what everything smelled like at floor level. I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush. I knew how to appreciate a really good fart, whether mine or someone else's.

Sadly, my visa was ready, so I didn't add much beyond this to what I'd already read. I then had to make an unexpected trip to the ward office to have my “gaijin card” (proof of foreigner registration card) updated to reflect my now-extended visa. I'd never done this in previous years (in the 90s, when I worked for Omron), so either it's a new requirement, or I was inadvertently naughty. I only knew to do it this time because the guy handing back my passport mentioned it.

My favorite book of all time — the one I'd bring to the deserted island — is Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, so I'm looking forward to enjoying this new one.

All 6 comments so far, oldest first...

Holy Cow, I’ve got two Bryson books open at the moment, re-reading Made in America for about the 19th time and looking up something I half-remembered from Mother Tongue. Over the winter I re-read Notes from a Small Island. If you don’t have any of those I’d be happy to lend any of them to you anytime. I especially recommend Made in America in the remote chance that you haven’t read it, which is really remote if you are a Bryson fan.

— comment by nils on April 26th, 2007 at 8:57pm JST (10 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

I’m so glad you like Bill Bryson’s writing. I will have to get the new one!

Yes, it’s really hard to dislike anything he writes, he’s so unassumingly witty. Thanks for introducing his writing to me! —Jeffrey

— comment by Michael Friedl on May 1st, 2007 at 4:07am JST (10 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

I’m also a big Bryson fan. Like John McPhee (who wrote a whole book about Oranges!), Tracy Kidder, and others, he is a master of the “book about nothing”. Sort of a literary Seinfeld. You could compare them to great photographers in that they look at what others look at, but somehow see more, or see it differently.

And independently, they can really write! Crisp, concise, with fresh, lively structure, and using vocabulary that perfectly captures nuances—practically without you noticing. Except for the smile on your face or the resonance of perfectly formed prose mainlining directly into your brain.

— comment by Steve on July 28th, 2007 at 8:28am JST (10 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

Holy awesome!

That book, A Short History of Nearly Everything is my favorite book!

I’ve been reading your blog today. Back from the 2006 post. Or was it 2005 when you got your camera? I’d say you have an enjoyable writing style yourself Mr. Fridl. Your blog is now in my ‘Read All Words’ folder on google reader.

— comment by Fajar on June 4th, 2010 at 6:33pm JST (7 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink


I first read your blog for about 2 years ago when I was looking for Lightroom plugins. And I have read it since then. It is also in my Google reader RSS to catch up every new post. I really enjoy your writing style and good taste for photography.
After reading this post I feel I need to read something by Bill Bryson.

— comment by rafalmag on October 30th, 2011 at 8:10pm JST (6 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

> “I’d say you have an enjoyable writing style yourself ”

I second that!

— comment by Anne on September 5th, 2012 at 3:38pm JST (5 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink
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