Today is Bill Bryson’s birthday. I’d like to thank his mother, his father and all of his ancestors, because he has added immeasurably to my existence.
Bill Bryson is one of two writers in the history of literature who make me laugh out loud. It’s very unusual to laugh out loud while reading, I think. Smiling, snickering, even a slight gurgling might occur, but a real guffaw is rare.
He began by writing travel books and his first – The Lost Continent – is a classic. It’s about his travels around the States, but it’s also a lot about his childhood and growing up in the Midwest (‘…Des Moines is the most powerful hypnotic known to man’).
I like his books about England, a place where he worked and lived for many years, married a native, and which he returned to after a short stay in the U.S. (cf. I’m a Stranger Here Myself, A Walk in the Woods).
He is hugely successful in the UK, probably much better known there than in his homeland – so well in fact, that he was named a chancellor of Durham University. For his early adventures in England – he was one day away from going home to Des Moines when he got a job in a lunatic asylum – read Notes from a Small Island.
Bryson has given up travel writing and expanded his horizons to include everything, as in A Really Short History of Nearly Everything, but he never departs from his persona – the mild-mannered, slightly perplexed observer who always sees the off-beat, the quixotic, the downright looney and is invariably delighted with it. And always, he is self-deprecating:
Among the many thousands of things that I have never been able to understand, one in particular stands out…who was the first person who stood by a pile of sand and said ‘You know, I bet if we took some of this and mixed it with a little potash and heated it, we could make a material that would be solid and yet transparent. We could call it glass.’ Call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach till the end of time and never would it occur to me to try and make it into windows.
– Notes From a Small Island
The other writer, btw, is Kingsley Amis, but only for Lucky Jim, a comic masterpiece he never quite equalled..