Monday 21 November 2011

Devouring Books: Notes From A Big Country by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of those authors whose books I have collected almost unconsciously, until I've got about 6 of the buggers when all I've actually read by him is his Shakespeare biography (which I read because of Shakespeare, rather than Bryson). Because of this, I was kind of apprehensive to read any of his books, in case I didn't like one, and found that I'd been clinging onto the rest for no good reason at all, and then, you know, who elses name would I confusingly search for in charity shops when mindlessly buying books?! (I realise this entire paragraph makes me sound like a crazy person, so you can probably just ignore it).

Anyway, so I did read this book, and OMG how funny is Bryson?! I mean, I think he was relatively funny in his Shakespeare biography (which I really need to read again because I know it was really really good) but with this book I was literally laughing out loud, and let's face it, anyone who says that on the internet is usually lying. I think I was the literal target audience for the book, a collection of columns about how strange America and Americans are that were originally published in an English newspaper, and they really spoke to me, you know? Bryson is in the peculiar position of having grown up in America but also having lived in England for about 20 years, and so he is the perfect person to both appeal to English audiences, whilst also being able to comment on American idiosyncrasies and oddities.

Now, if you've ever been here before, you'll know that I love America in terms of its physical land, and the culture(s) and the cities and a lot of the lovely people, but there are a few pre-conceptions that English people hold about Americans that Bryson is very aware of, and knows exactly how to play on in the perfect way. By this, I mean that he is never really mean, or cruel, but kind of gently teasing about the American way of life as he sees it, and alongside this, he's also gently mocking of himself; which makes the mocking of anything else so much easier to take. He gets the most passionate and angry at things which he thinks are the most important (for example, in calling the Death Penalty idiotic, or preferring free healthcare to, say, free water in restaurants [which, by the way, we do have over here, it's just that you have to ask for it!]). It's about as perfect a set of columns as you can read if you're in my position, in that he makes English people seem overly enlightened about things, whilst also not being mean about Americans. In most cases, Bryson is the one who ends up kind of taking the position of the fool, which I think is the way we all prefer it.

Although these columns were originally published in the late 90s, I think there are still many things in there that are still relevant and still being talked about today, not least the whole free healthcare thing, or the reliance Americans have on their conveniences, one of Bryson's favourite topics. The most dated are the ones where he talks about 'modern' technology, where he complains about how difficult it is to set up a computer and things like that, and it's quite hard to relate to these chapters because, you know, you get your MacBook out of the box, turn it on and you're kind of ready to go... But, on the whole, they're still funny and who doesn't need a bit of laughter in their lives? I'm also not sure if this book is quite as relevant to Americans as it is to, say, me, but I think that, if someone had written a book outlining the idiosyncrasies of British life (as I'm sure someone has) I think it would still appeal to me, and I might even find it funnier than someone not from the UK. Americans, take note!

About the only thing I can't agree with Bryson with is when he says Americans aren't funny, mainly because he provides so much evidence himself to the contrary! Read this book and expect to laugh- you won't be at all disappointed. I wasn't, and I'm excited to read my other, ooh, 5 Bryson books that I've had for years and never read. Yay for planning ahead and knowing I would love him!

Note: Shout out to Alley, another funny American for recommending this book to me!


  1. I LOVE Bill Bryson! I also have a collection of his books, my favourite one being The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid which is his memoirs of growing up in Iowa in the 50s & 60s. It was a very sweet and funny read. I, too, was laughing out loud. It was the kind of book I should really have only read at home so as not to embarrass myself completely by bursting into laughter while on, say, a crowded subway.

  2. I have The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid! I think it's kind of between that and A Walk In the Woods for which one I read next. Also, hehe at laughing in public- I'm sure no one thought you were a loony! :)

  3. I remember the chapter on the Moose being the funniest. The thing is that Bryson wrote the chapters as a column for I think a newspaper and so he did play up to his English audience somewhat.

    Its funny as I saw him at a reading once and he came across as really shy IRL

  4. It's interesting that he's all shy in real life! Although I do think that sometimes people are better at being outspoken in writing than in real life, like, well, me for example! Also, I think he definitely played up to his English audience. Like, massively!

  5. I absolutely love Bill Bryson, I think he is really funny! The Boy got annoyed when I was reading because I was laughing so much and was distracting him from his book. I've read a couple more of his books and he never disappoints.