The list of authors of whom I’ve read everything or nearly everything they’ve put out is small. There are a lot of reasons for this. Reading books takes longer than listening to a CD, for instance. Also, there is so much out there. I really have to be grabbed by someone’s writing to actively try to read all of their books.
Bill Bryson never really grabbed me in such a way. At least, I didn’t think he had. I was, frankly, rather unimpressed with the first book of his I read: The Lost Continent. Certainly, there were many delightful moments, but he fell victim to the trap of so many travel writers (this goes all the way back to Darwin, at least) of not quite realizing that just because he was really bored, that didn’t mean we needed a description of each moment of boredom.
But then I read several fairly weighty books in a row, and I found myself thinking, “a little Bryson would be just the thing now.” And then I read an enormous book and need a bit of a mental palate cleanser and I though, “a little Bryson would be just the thing now.” This kind of thing just kept happening.
It didn’t take me long, of course, to realize that the first book I’d read was one of his first and thus I should have been ready for an improvement. As I entered into my summer of reading ponderous classics, I thought, “I’m going to need a little Bill Bryson to get me through this.” I popped over to Wikipedia to see what I hadn’t read and realized, rather suddenly, that there wasn’t that much. He had become one of those writers I’d sought out without my even knowing it. Bill Bryson is a tricky fellow.
But just how did he trick me? Well, he’s funny, for one. Cate recently threatened to ban Bill Bryson from bedtime reading because I was laughing so hard. But there’s more to it than that. His writing is delightfully mean-spirited at times (I fondly recall him cherishing the thought that some aggravating old people would be dead much sooner than he would), but still forgiving (he manages to forgive his frustrating compatriot Katz many, many, many times).
I don’t think it’s the humor or the jauntiness that really keep me coming back though. Rather, it is his honesty and his enthusiastic enjoyment of learning. He will gladly broadcast his most embarrassing indiscretion if it makes for a good story and he is, similarly, not afraid to make an ass of himself satisfying his curiosity. He gives the people and the countries he writes about the benefit of the doubt, but he doesn’t overlook or marginalize the horrible things they’ve done. I’m reading In a Sunburned Country right now and while he has certainly made it clear that he loves the Australian people in general, it is equally clear how appalled he is at the treatment of the Aborigines.
There is an awful lot of fooling around in Bill Bryson’s books. He makes mistakes. He doubles back. His plans are ruined by lack of foresight or dumb chance, but he tells the truth. He looks squarely, if generously at the world, and so, the books themselves are never foolish.