*[I'll try to avoid ad hominem, but Bryson's physique mirrors such ethical laziness. He is a man of exceeding and prideful girth, who simultaneously laments and embraces his obesity, elevating its American-ness to some state beyond any type of health concern. He can only … laugh at his heft, claiming that diets and healthy habits are, in perpetuity, beyond his grasp, that it’s just too much work and he’d much rather enjoy a second helping of turkey, even though — wink! — we know it’s bad for him. Oh, Bill. You slay us.]
Macroscopically, the countries that Bryson chronicles comprise stereotypical white-bread worlds: Australia, England, The U.S. They totter along as children of the Empire, carrying forth the First World torch of English, with goodness and integrity and little, relatively, in the way of actual, broad-base need. They are, on a larger scale, Bryson himself: a tad sloven, impeded only by minor bumps and eager to remain in the comfort of democratic election and assorted social nets. Even when in these nations, Bryson is somehow able to find himself in the most pacific areas he can, from Des Moines, Iowa, to Hanover, New Hampshire. Not exactly places that lend themselves to larger social critiques.
The closest Bryson comes to actually traveling to a country beyond the British model comes toward the end of Neither Here Nor There, when he treads into the Yugosphere, traveling among the Serbs and Croats and Bosniaks. But just as he might find something a bit different than his Western Europe quality-of-life, he peers out the back window toward a world of head-scarves and Slavism and all things Other. Then, citing fatigue and a longing for his family — and the understood fact that, why, that’s not quite Europe beyond those Dardanelles — he decamps for the wide, familiar pastures of the West. He leaves just when things might get, shudder, different.
Bryson exists only within a certain, narrow realm. Despite being a voyeur of the English language, he’s got nothing on India; despite being unduly content in the First World, he’s not yet cataloged Japan (or South Africa, or China, or Brazil, or …). Bryson, it would seem, writes within the reinforced borders of Gentlemen’s Agreements and White Man’s Burdens. He’s unwilling to move beyond and show his audience something that might expand their non-Euro knowledge in the slightest. Which is, as a multi-polar world rises, not only poor business, but also archaic and condescending.*
*[I can think of two non-Euro examples, two pieces of which I’m incredibly proud, that crop immediately to mind. My good friend Tim Faust recently traveled to Palestine — his first trip out of the country, no less — and came back with prose and photography, both masterful, that unveil the personalities and problems of innumerable Palestinians. Another good friend, Jordan Conn, recently returned from South Sudan and penned a 10,000-word piece on the new nation’s favorite son, Manute Bol, which is currently on sale at Amazon. Best $2 you’ll spend all year.]
Even when Bryson is within those countries fitting the mould, you’d be hard-pressed to find any wide-cast social critiques; instead, he's more interested in the trivialities than the troubles. He’s content to chat about peculiarities of the platypus rather than the myriad plights in aboriginal Arnhem Land. He’s fine commending government support for the Postal Service while never mentioning the slow crumble of the school system. He’s content with his rose-colored glasses, so long as he’s never asked to extend himself in any meaningful manner.