Explain Bill Bryson to me

I’ve noticed a lot of love for him around here, and I recently started reading my first Bill Bryson book, The Lost Continent. I went in with high hopes, but halfway through I am about ready to give up. He constantly complains about how ugly and run-down everything in America is, but whenever he comes across a place that has put effort into looking attractive and keeping things up, he complains that it seems fake. It just seems like no matter what he encounters it’s just bitch bitch bitch.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a) I do like his actual writing - his imagery is amazing and there are many very funny parts, b) I’m not even American so am definitely not offended or anything, and c) the catty bitch in me loves some good judgmental indignation like anyone, but he just seems so inconsistent and whiny. Is it just me? Am I missing something? Is it just sooo clever and brilliant that it’s over my head? Or is he kind of a pompous prick?

Try A Walk in the Woods. He bitches in that one too, but it’s lots more fun.

I’m A Stranger Here Myself is better.

I agree, I have read several of his books and this is by far the best. In case you don’t know it is about his attempt at the age of forty-something to hike the Appalachian trail with an old friend he hasn’t seen in years. Part of the reason the book is good is he makes a lot of fun of himself, and he is clearly way out of his normal element on the trip.

Thanks. The AT one actually sounds very appealling - my favourite bit of The Lost Continent so far has been the Appalachian part so I suspect I would really enjoy that, and I’ll have to check out the one silenus recommends too, as I really do like his writing and want to be a fan.
Thanks for the advice, all!

I also recommend In A Sunburned Country. For his non-travel related writings, try The Mother Tongue or Made In America.

While Mr. Bryson is a very good writer, if you pick up a book of his which delves into word origins, etc. , do NOT take what he says as gospel. He possibly is one of the worst at doing this kind of thing. He picks up on popular assumptions, does little to research his statements, and offers etymologies which are at best out of date and at worst are completely wrong. Other than that, enjoy. :frowning:

A Walk in the Woods is a fine read. But it has as much to do with actually walking the AT as does The Sound of Music with the Von Trapp family’s adventures in WWII. His books are mostly non-fiction, just not very accurate.

But fun to read.

In A Sunburned Country inspired me to take a long road trip in WA. I hit The Tree Top Walk and checked out the Stromatolites at Shark Bay. He described each place perfectly, by the way. His work was responsible for me experiencing these two wonderful places…what more could you ask from a travel writer?

I really enjoyed his memoir of growing up in the fifties. I think it’s his most recent book, but I can’t draw the title from my brain at the moment. And I also enjoyed the walk around England book–Notes from a Small Island? Try those two.

You’re just taking him seriously, that’s all. He’s a humourist, but unlike many of his colleagues, he often has no (or little) intent. YMMV, of course (especially in a travel book :D.)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

I love Bryson. The only “miss” among his books to me is A Short History of Nearly Everything. I find it pretty much unreadable. Anything that Bryson writes, I usually finish in one evening because I can’t put it down. Not so with that one.

I love his language books, I’m a Stranger Here Myself and Notes from a Small Island. Wonderful stuff.

His bestselling A Short History On Nearly Everything goes even better at taking misunderstanding and oversimplificaiton of scientific concepts to an entirely new and outrageously incorrect level. Just in thumbing through the first few chapters at a bookstore I found numerous errors which were just not quite wrong enough to be glaring, but sufficiently incorrect to completely misinform the reader. That alone irritates me (to the point of wanting to write a book which corrects those misapprehensions), but I’m not fond of his writing style or authorial persona, either: he seems to be attempting a blue-collar impression of Paul Theroux (who can be annoying in his own right, but at least has actual writing chops) or the travel literature version of Ray Romano. I, too, tried The Lost Continent (a gift from a girlfriend), A Walk In The Woods (on the bookshelf at the lodge I was staying overnight in), and Made In America (left in the card pouch in the seat in front of me on the airplane*, and couldn’t get more than a few dozen pages into any of them.

He’s got quite a following, here and otherwise, so I guess there’s something to him, but I can’t figure out what it is. I’ll pick up Graham Greene or John McPhee any day over Bryson.


I’ve never read any Bill Bryson but I’ve heard all his CDs and he’s adorable and hilarious. He’s got the perfect voice for his personality. Something about it always sounds sort of gleeful.

I’m not sure how to explain what I think is so great about him. Lost Continent is one I didn’t hear. Life and Times of the Thunderbolt kid is my favourite by far. There is a flash clip of him reading from that one.

Good things about Bryson:
-He’s so hilarious he makes me snort beverages out my nose.
-He’s wide-ranging and prolific.
-He has a genuine love of history and a pleasant light touch with it.

Not-so-good things about Bryson:
-He may enjoy visiting a place at first, but he rarely seems to leave happy. (Especially in Europe.)
-He’s a regular Typhoid Mary for urban legends.
-His half-assed somewhere-over-the-North-Atlantic accent.

Mother Tongue. By God I hated that book. Bryson always goes for the amusing third-hand anecdote over the actual truth, to the extent of repeating idiot canards like “Eskimos have over forty different words for snow”. There are any number of decent popular books about linguistics out there, but that ain’t one of them, and I wouldn’t trust a word the man wrote on any factual subject without verifying it.

It’s a very odd book. It would seem that it was written with a noble purpose but then goes and gets everything a bit wrong. I jogged though it until I got to a chapter where I had some proper knowledge of the subject and just put it down as untrustworthy. Why couldn’t he have done some real research, where on Earth did he get his information? He is also guilty of the occasional gratuitous use of the word ‘fuck’******.

***** by the way, the source of the information about when and for how long the Marianas Trench was last explored, which has cropped up here occasionally. Does anyone remember the details?

****** Not in this book but it crops up in *Notes from a Small Island * and the Thunderbolt Kid and seems quite out of place in both.

A hundred people have said this, but nobody ever explains what all these alleged mistakes are.

Shit, I wanted to use that title on an autobiography.

A few of my friends love Bryson, and my mother just discovered him. She read me a passage about the worst meal he ever ate (“a meal of gristle baked whiffle ball”) and it was very funny. I’ll have to borrow that book.