The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America – Bill Bryson

Summary from Goodreads:

‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to’.

And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn’t hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. Travelling around thirty-eight of the lower states – united only in their mind-numbingly dreary uniformity – he discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. 

I think I have definitely gone on about how much I love Bill Bryson on this blog (see my review of A Walk in the Woods). I will always find him hilarious and this book definitely had me laughing out loud almost continuously. That said though, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by it.

Why, you might be wondering? Because I think Bryson did a really crappy job at representing small-town America. He’s funny, yes. Accurate? Definitely not. He focuses on the ugliness of the suburbs, the stupidity of the people, and he goes on and on about how boring and over-priced the monuments are. But he doesn’t actually talk to anyone from any of these places. I mean, not in any way that isn’t arrogant and condescending. In my opinion, judging a town by the number of restaurants in it rather than by actually listening to and talking to the people who live in it is not fair. It’s C-grade travel writing at best.

I think Bryson seriously missed out on what could have been an awesome and insightful book about the incredibly varied, inspiring, fascinating cultures and landscapes that the US has to offer. Yes, making fun of how ignorant, untraveled, and ugly Americans can be will always be easier/possibly way funnier. But it’s a cop out.

Have you read The Lost Continent? What did you think of it? Have you read any of Bill Bryson’s other books? Please feel free to share your thoughts. I always love hearing from you. 🙂 

~Anna

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Summary from Goodreads:

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).

Bill Bryson is the bomb. I read this book when I was feeling a little down and stressed out, and it was exactly what I needed. It’s hilarious, full of weird and wonderful facts, and it did indeed make me long for the great outdoors (or at least, it made me want to read this book while sitting in a comfy chair overlooking some misty mountains with a cup of tea in hand). In short, it’s a typical Bill Bryson book in the best of ways.

My favourite thing about Bill Bryson is his ability to see the humour in every situation. I think he’s absolutely hilarious (although I am also the kind of person who laughs at dad jokes and thinks that Mr Bean is a comedic genius). I read a good portion of this book while sitting outside in the Botanical Gardens, and I could not stop cackling madly to myself. Needless to say, I got a few strange looks. His descriptions of the gratingly obnoxious Mary Ellen in particular almost had me crying with laughter.

I also really love that Bill Bryson has such a sense of adventure. Yes, he is a curmudgeonly old man, but he also has some serious guts. I mean, hiking over half of the AT at middle age with no real hiking experience for months at a time with a junk-food-obsessed travelling companion prone to tossing irreplaceable supplies is no small feat.

I also really don’t know how it’s possible to know so much about everything. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to have to face Bill Bryson in a game of Trivial Pursuit. Throughout the book, he painlessly inserts lessons of history, geology, entomology, and more. We learn about the changes acid rain has brought to the wild, and he recounts the stories of the southern pine beetle, the smoky madtom and wooly adelgids, and about Daniel Boone, Henry David Thoreau and Stonewall Jackson. Bryson delivers an extended geology lesson on the tectonic formation of the 470 million year-old Appalachian Mountains that palatably educates. As I said before, he is the king of fun facts.

Yes, I have some criticisms of this book, but I don’t really feel like dwelling on them. I read this book precisely because I didn’t want to have to think too much, and it did not disappoint. It made me laugh, it made me cry (with laughter), and it made me feel so much better about everything. Highly recommended.

Have you read A Walk in the Woods? Or any of Bill Bryson’s other books? What do you think of him? 

~Anna