Thursday 29 September 2011
Devouring Books: Stephen Fry in America
It's interesting to know that Stephen Fry, as he points out in the introduction to Stephen Fry in America, very nearly was born in America- his father was offered a teaching position at Princeton, which he turned down, but what if he hadn't? It's extremely trippy to think of Stephen Fry as an American, considering that he is, perhaps, the most English Englishman I can think of (albeit an extremely left-wing, atheist Englishman, which only makes me love him the more), and honestly, the fact that he travelled around America because he loves it so much and then wrote a book about it makes me basically as happy as a book can make a person. To put it plainly, this book is Laura-crack. Not your average travelogue of a journey around America, this book has stunning photos (seriously, America? SO beautiful) and, because it's kind of a companion to a six-part TV series he made for the BBC, there is literally never a dull moment because he had to travel to all kinds of interesting places to make it interesting for the telly!
There is a part in the book for each of the fifty States, and each includes stuff like the abbreviation for the State, State birds, mottos, drinks and things like that; as well as notable people from/associated with that State. This posed a problem for me, because I initially thought they were people born in that State, leading to a lot of confusion when Tennessee Williams was listed under Mississippi (he's called Tennessee! God, those are both hard States to spell!) until I realised that actually meant he just lived there for a bit. That confusion over, the chapters themselves are amazing. The really great thing about what Fry has done is that he doesn't go to the places you would expect him to. I mean sure, he goes to Vegas, but there he finds Mormons posing for a half-naked calendar (and yet, in Utah, he doesn't see any mormons at all!) He goes to Washington DC, and, rather than seeing any politicians, meets up with the founder of Wikipedia. He visits the Ben and Jerry's factory in Vermont (which I didn't know existed before I watched the documentary, and which I now absolutely must visit) and never even sees the Grand Canyon (which I do want to see and which I once told my friend off for going to Vegas and not seeing). He sees probably more of America than most Americans, and, for the most part, has only nice things to say about every State.
I think what this book has done more than anything is made me realise just how utterly varied and wonderful America as an entire country. I mean, it's got everything. Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, desert, cities, countryside, beaches, two oceans, and I can't really think of anything in the world like Monument Valley. Where I'm going with this is that, I used to scoff at the fact that something like 90% of Americans don't have passports, the way I feel about it now is almost, why does one ever need to leave America?! I mean, everything is there, and that's just in California (probably my favourite State, even though New York is, of course, my favourite City). Of course, I'm not saying that it's not good to travel- of course it's great, Paris is really nice, Switzerland is beautiful, but what I'm saying is this: Americans could probably stay in the country their entire lives, and still not see everything it has to offer.
Back to the book, I really enjoy how clear it is that Stephen Fry loves America- his journey takes him to many different places and to many different cultures, and he has nary a bad word to say about any of them- he gently chides religion, ever so slightly mocks a man who wants to hunt for Bigfoot, but most of his criticism is reserved for himself, and that only when he looks a bit silly dressing up in, say, a cowboy hat. And that kind of thing only makes you love him all the more, and makes you want to say 'nawwww, don't be silly- you look great!' even when, it has to be said, he does look a bit silly in a cowboy hat. The only bad thing I have to say about the writing in the book, in fact, is that someone didn't do their editing job very well- there were a fair few typos that I picked up on, which just proves that I should be Stephen Fry's personal editing lady person (very official job title there) just to make this book utterly perfect. Although, did I mention? Morgan Freeman makes an appearance in it too. I think perfection was just achieved!
Obviously I think you should read this book. Everyone should read this book. It's a weird thing when you feel patriotic for a country that's not your own, but I kind of do for America, and this book sort of makes me feel homesick for a country that's never been mine. Even if you are American, you can probably learn some new things about your country, and feel immeasurably lucky to live there. If you get the opportunity to see the documentary, then I definitely recommend that too- 6 straight hours of Stephen Fry ambling about America being lovely? Perfection! In the spirit of travel and America-loving, I've decided to list the top ten States I'd most like to visit (let's keep in mind that I want to see them all) because, although Stephen Fry doesn't play favourites with the States, I definitely do! So, my top ten, right now:
3. Utah (for Monument Valley)
4. Illinois (Chicago)
5. Maine (Stephen King land! [no that's not a theme park])
6. Washington (Seattle/Nirvana-land)
7. Tennessee (Dollywood!)
8. Louisiana (New Orleans)
9. Vermont (Ben and Jerry's factory)
So, fair readers. Good calls? Do you want to make a case for your State? Or, do you want to offer me a place to stay (you definitely do!) Have at it in the comments.
Note: I left New York off the list only because I've been there twice. But, seriously- NYC is my favourite place in the world, so far!