Disappointed with Bill Bryson
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I've posted before about my admiration for Bill Bryson's writing, in both “Renewing my Visa with Bill Bryson” and “Good Photographers, Bad Writers”. My favorite all-time book – the one I'd want if I could have only one – is A Short History of Nearly Everything. One clue that he's a great writer is that the subject matter of the book can be completely uninteresting – the very essence of boring – but he makes it enthralling. I cite as example his books on hiking the Appalachian trail (A Walk in the Woods) and on growing up in the 50s (Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid).

I've also read his books on traveling in Australia (In a Sunburned Country) and on the history of the English language (The Mother Tongue), both excellent! His compilation of short magazine articles, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, written for a British audience after having returned to The States after 20 years in England, is perfect for when you don't have a lot of time, because each article is just a few pages.

My enthusiasm, sadly, has taken a downturn with the book I just finished, The Lost Continent. This book, subtitled “Travels in Small-Town America”, recounts a long trip by car on the back roads of America.

Here's an excerpt, from page 52...

I was headed for Cairo, which is pronounced “Kay-ro.” I don't know why. They do this a lot in the South and Midwest. In Kentucky, Athens is pronounced “AY-thens” and Versailles is pronounced “Vur-SAYLES.” Bolivar, Missouri, is “BAW-liv-er.” Madrid, Iowa, is “MAD-rid.” I don't know whether the people in these towns pronounce them that way because they are backward, undereducated shitkickers who don't know any better or whether they know better but don't care that everybody thinks they are backward undereducated shitkickers. It's not really the sort of question you can ask them, is it? At Cairo I stopped for gas and in fact I did ask the old guy who doddered out to fill my tank why they pronounced Cairo as they did.

“Because that's its name,” he explained as if I were kind of stupid.

“But the one in Egypt is pronounced 'Ki-ro.'”

“So I've heard,” agreed the man.

“And so most people, when they see the name, think 'Ki-ro,' don't they?”

“Not in Kay-ro they don't,” he said, a little hotly.

There didn't see to be much to be gained by pursuing the point, so I let it rest there, and I still don't know why the people call it “Kay-ro.” Nor do I know why any citizen of a free country would choose to live in such a dump, however you pronounce it.

A few pages later, he's getting into Mississippi and “The South”, after a stretch of boring road....

Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin'?”

This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?”

“I said, how yew doin'?”

“I'm fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.”

“Y'on vacation?”

“Yup.”

“Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”

“Pardon?”

“I say, Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?”

I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn't understand a word he was saying to me. “I'm sorry,” I said, “I'm kind of slow, and I don't understand what you're saying.”

“I say” — and he repeated it more carefully — “how do yew lack Mississippi?”

It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it's wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn't been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I sighed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.”

Of course, we all know it's great fun to ridicule people who speak differently than you, or look differently than you, or are in any way not “you”.

At least, it seems that Bill Bryson thought that, because the book is 300 pages of pure, unadulterated arrogance (expressed in a witty prose of otherwise excellent caliber). At first I thought that he was just racist, because the early part of the book covers The South and his observations of Blacks. But it quickly became apparent that anyone who had the same color skin, or different, more wealth than him or less, more education or less.... or the same... anyone that wasn't him... was a complete moron, in his opinion, worthy of the most florid disdain.

Starting this book having been a huge fan of his writing, I grew more and more distressed and disappointed as I went. Eventually I noticed that the copyright was 1989, a full decade earlier than what I had already read from him, and I realized that the Bill Bryson that I had come to know prior to this book was one whose youthful self-righteous had already been tempered by the wisdom of maturity.

Disappointing.


All 8 comments so far, oldest first...

Yikes. That really is bad. ‘Think I’ll avoid it.

— comment by Joanna (in Austin) on August 28th, 2009 at 8:20am JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Yeah, that is some really offensive stuff. And, it’s not even making fun of people like me and I hardly find anything offensive. But that is definitely offensive. (Although, I couldn’t help laughing at the “gentle slope” line, even if he got evolution wrong in the “we are all descended from apes” line (actually, homo sapiens and other primates are both descended from a common ancestor, a crucial distinction).)

I wonder if this attitude doesn’t come across in his later works because he gained some maturity, or because he simply doesn’t run across people he considers himself superior to.

— comment by Zak on August 28th, 2009 at 8:42am JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Zak commented : “I wonder if this attitude doesn’t come across in his later works because he gained some maturity, or because he simply doesn’t run across people he considers himself superior to.”

I think it must be maturity, because his biggest laughs in just about all his other books come at his own expense. I’ve read a lot of his books, and he’s a riot. His biography is an absolute scream. But if I had read “The Lost Continent” first, I doubt I’d have read another by him again.

Like Jeffrey, I’m disappointed in that book. But since everything since has been so, so good, I’d like to think that’s evidence that he’s just grown up since that early work.

— comment by Marcina, USA on August 28th, 2009 at 11:01am JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I’m glad to hear that, Marcina, because my big illustrated hardcover copy of A Brief History of Everything is one of my favorite bathroom books. 🙂

— comment by Zak on August 28th, 2009 at 12:09pm JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Yes totally racist, like the societies he observes but not necessarily the individuals and given the calibre of his books I can’t help but think it was somehow clever and a study in irony.

— comment by Wayne on August 28th, 2009 at 4:44pm JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I found “A Walk in the Woods” to be much the same and never read anything else of his. Seems he has (or had) broad disdain for anybody not from his part of the world.

— comment by Kevin on August 29th, 2009 at 2:50am JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Jeffrey’s post and some of the comments seem to me as if you miss a good portion of irony and humor. It looks like US Americans are a little over-sensitive when some one is making fun of their habits, language, etc.
Some German comedians describe the lower bavarian dialect as dog barking, but I dont no anyone who really feels offended by such jokes.

All of Bill Bryson’s books are filled with irony and humor and wit, which is one of the reasons I like them so much. This book, however, is different, in that it’s filled from the first page to the last with “this person is pathetic because they’re not me” observations. Like all his books, occasionally he’ll have “this person is pathetic because they’re like me” or “I am pathetic” passages, but the incessant, obnoxious superiority complex he’s got on every remaining page leaves this book tiresome early on. Like I said, it’s disappointing. —Jeffrey

— comment by spidy on August 31st, 2009 at 8:27pm JST (8 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

That’s funny: Lost Continent was the first book of his I read. It drove me to hysterics, and nothing of his since has been quite as funny (although they have had their chuckles). Short History was decent, but it didn’t lend itself to his type of humor.

Like you I moved to Japan. Unlike you, I’m still here. And I didn’t return to the U.S. for a visit for five years after I moved here, and in just that amount of time I found I had lots of problems when returning. Because 100 yen was about a dollar, and because a quarter looked like a 100 yen coin, I would pay for things costing a dollar with a quarter, getting puzzled looks. The open friendliness of Americans kind of creeped me out for a bit. And my ears were not attuned to English, so I needed to ask for things to be repeated. And I constantly was saying “Hai” in the middle of conversations, sounding like an idiot.

After a couple of decades away, I bet Bryson had similar difficulties. I found the book funny and charming, and not insulting at all … except maybe for the part comparing Iowa girls to inflatable life rafts. But on the other hand, the disgusting obesity in the U.S. is really the main thing you notice as a returning expat, is it not? So I can give him a pass on that.

I thought Walk in the Woods was his second best after Lost Continent, because I’m a backpacker, so it wasn’t boring to me. The bear stuff was absolutely on target: you freak yourself out with worry, for no real reason.

I still live in Kyoto… was just visiting my folks when I posted that. —Jeffrey

— comment by Mike on October 11th, 2009 at 11:11am JST (8 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink
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