#7: Bill Bryson: This Insatiably Curious Author Brings the LOL

#7: Bill Bryson: This Insatiably Curious Author Brings the LOL


For this post, I coined a new acronym: Reading in Bed and Laughing Out Loud. That’s what I remember best when reading my first Bryson Book, “A Walk in the Woods”. It’s a story about the time that Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym). I was chortling so hard my hubs of course asked “so what’s so damn funny?”. I ended up reading a good part of the book aloud to him and we cackled like hyenas the whole time. After that, I knew that Bill Bryson had become another of my favorite authors.

My own Brysons

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Bryson has been a resident of Britain for most of his adult life, although he returned to the United States between 1995 and 2003. The books he has written about England are well-written, perceptive and absolutely hilarious. “Notes from a Small Island” (1995) is a great example of this. Bryson took public transportation to (almost) all corners of the island, observing and talking to people from as far afield as Exeter in the West Country to John o’ Groats at the northeastern tip of Scotland’s mainland. On his way, Bryson provides historical information on the places he visits, and expresses amazement at the heritage in Britain, stating that there were 445,000 listed historical buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1,500,000 acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths and public rights-of-way, and 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest!

“The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain” is the sequel to “Notes From a Small Island.” Written two decades later, it provokes just as much laughter and snorting as its predecessor.

In “The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way” Bryson provides a great overview of the rich and complex history of the English language. The book discusses the Indo-European origins of English, the growing status of English as a global language, the complex etymology of English words, the dialects of English, grammar reform, prescriptive grammar, and more minor topics including swearing. Bryson is always excellent at writing in accessible and interesting ways about complex and varied subjects, and this is a top-notch example of this.

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My favorite Bryson book to date is “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. This is a book you CAN dip in and out of, but I’ve read it cover-to-cover, and more than once.

A quote from Bryson about the reason for the book:

“It was as if [the textbook writer] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable.”

— Bryson, on the state of science books used within his school.

I can believe it; as I’ve said before, math and science have never been my top subjects but this book is so approachable and engaging that it encouraged my reading of other books related to those topics. From Wikipedia:

In 2004, this book won Bryson the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book. Bryson later donated the £10,000 prize to the Great Ormond Street Hospital children’s charity. In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication. It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for the same year.

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In “At Home: A Short History of Private Life”, Bryson gives the reader a fascinating history of the modern home, taking us on a room-by-room tour through his own house and using each room to explore the vast history of the domestic artifacts we take for granted. As he takes us through the history of our modern comforts, Bryson demonstrates that whatever happens in the world eventually ends up in our home, in the paint, the pipes, the pillows, and every item of furniture. Bryson’s sheer prose fluency makes At Home one of the most entertaining books ever written about private life.

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A book of articles edited by Bryson, “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society” (2011) provides a thorough overview of modern scientific history. From the publisher:

Seeing Further tells the spectacular story of modern science through the lens of the international Royal Society, founded on a damp November night in London in 1660. Isaac Newton, John Locke, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking—all have been fellows. Its members have split the atom, discovered the double helix and the electron, and given us the computer and the World Wide Web. Gorgeously illustrated with photographs, documents, and treasures from the Society’s exclusive archives, Seeing Further is an unprecedented celebration of the power of ideas.

From the Guardian:

This is a book of cerebral riches, heavy with history, to be consumed at leisure. It is also beautifully illustrated. All but one of its 22 contributors wrote specially for this anthology. Richard Holmes, fresh from his scientific history The Age of Wonder, provides new material on 18th-century balloon flights. Richard Dawkins sums up the significance of Darwin’s achievement with renewed metaphorical force. The Natural History Museum paleontologist Richard Fortey highlights the importance of collections; Steve Jones raises some of the puzzles of biodiversity; the physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford contemplates the enigma of time

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One Summer: America 1927

This is an utterly captivating book. The events that occurred that summer could each, on their own, have been noteworthy. The fact that they happened around the same period of time is nothing short of miraculous!

  • Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop.
  • Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record, which would culminate on September 30 with his sixtieth blast.
  • A Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her corset-salesman lover garroted her husband, leading to a murder trial that became a huge tabloid sensation.
  • Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days—a new record.
  • The American South was clobbered by unprecedented rain and by flooding of the Mississippi basin, a great human disaster.
  • Calvin Coolidge interrupted an already leisurely presidency for an even more relaxing three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • The gangster Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through a reign of terror and municipal corruption.
  • The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed.
  • The four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision.

Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor.

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In Summary

It’s hard for me to recommend one Bryson over another; they each have their attractions and it depends on what you like, or what you’re in the mood for. I can only say no matter which one you pick, you won’t be disappointed! For the sake of brevity, I was unable to cover the following books, but this doesn’t mean they’re not worth your valuable reading time!

  • The Lost Continent
  • Neither Here Nor There
  • I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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