If serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan has changed nothing else, it's that I now, for the first time in my life, make a concerted effort to read books. Having just finished off four halcyon, Keystone-blurred years of college, I can settle into an afternoon in the steppe, pore through Kerouac and Steinbeck and Solzhenitsyn, and finally get through all those novels that I'd previously charmed my way out of.
For a few reasons — adolescent laze, Twitter-inspired attention spans, an inherent distaste for all things assigned — I'd long overlooked books as a viable or interesting medium. That’s not to say I wouldn’t read, of course. I chewed through magazines and compilations (and a few dozen graphic novels) at torrid pace. If something struck — say, Friday Night Lights, or Nick Hornby, or any of the staff writers at Sports Illustrated — I’d not let it sit, but would set on my bed or the toilet and not move until I’d finished.
Ernest Hemingway. Bill Heinz. Gary Smith. All enraptured. All stood frank in their language, and all were worthy of my time. But no one, no single author or poet or journalist, ever captured me as stridently as Bill Bryson.
Bryson came into my life just as most other intellectual pursuits have: from my grandmother. Nearly a decade ago, I unwrapped a hard-back Christmas copy of Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. The book was a gap-filling escapade through the histories of those truths and facts we now take to be self-evident: the construction of an atom, where the dinosaurs went wrong, how anyone could possibly measure the weight of the earth. As the title suggests, the book’s breadth is impressive, and while the histories are but truncated snippets, the reader is rarely left desiring more. Bryson’s writing was transparent and light, interjecting without dominating, taking the reader logically from pterosaurs to Ptolemy. It was engrossing. Upon re-opening the book a few years back, I found that its language served just as accessibly to a 20-something as it did to an early teen.
It took one more meeting of coincidence with Bryson — rummaging in my basement, I found a copy of In a Sunburned Country, on Bryson’s antipodean adventures, just days before I was set for a semester in Australia — until I considered myself a fan. After that semester, I read whatever Bryson I could find. Mother Tongue, a history of English etymology. The Lost Continent, cataloging a trek through The States. Made in America, which attempted to dispense the histories of wonderfully convoluted Americanisms. Since graduating, I’ve also found myself in possession of three more of his works: Neither Here Nor There, retracing his backpack-heavy trip through Europe; I’m a Stranger Here Myself, on his return to America after 20 years in Britain; and A Walk in the Woods, about his quest to conquer the Appalachian Trail.