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.
As made clear from the quotes peppering the front pages, all of these books have been critically lauded. Bryson has been compared to de Tocqueville and Dave Barry, called ‘dazzlingly good’ and ‘snort-root-beer-out-your-nose-funny.’ He would, I imagine, rival only David Sedaris as the leading literary humorist of the early Millennium. He is renowned, and his place in modern Americana (Anglophona?) is set.
And it is just such a position that I’d like to call out.
The reason that Bryson first captured me was, as one of his critics intoned, because he makes his job look so damn easy. He goes about his daily life, scribbling a few trenchant observations, and spins it into a column or a chapter that reads quickly and deeply. The writing is dry in wit and ample in vocabulary, and his one-offs are, indeed, humorous. (Though it is the rare occasion that he and Sedaris actually catch me snorting liquids with their language.) He’s a man of talent — prodigious, effortless talent. And he wastes it.
Or perhaps I shouldn’t say he wastes it. But, in the least, he squanders it. It is clear, from his repugnance over the deforestation of the Appalachian Trail to his maligning the demise of Main Street, that he carries a moral bent, and does so in the muted way of a man sure in his ways. Yet he refuses to let any moral coaxing get in the way of a good pun. He refuses to impugn the culprits, and shies from calling out any act or product or habit we hold for fear of losing a bit of that lilting laughter that dominates his efforts.
From reading the majority of his canon, it is clear that Bryson would rather whine alongside the problem — say, the nefariousness of Wal-Mart’s practices, or the multitudinous housing developments thinning the AT — than actually move beyond an 800-word/paperback limit and affect some type of change, be it personal or political. He skims right past the problem at which he may hint, waddling into a new grove of humoristic exploits and leaving the troubles to fester and burble as they always have. He’d rather write than wring; he’d rather charm than change.
However, Bryson’s indisposition toward any type of firm-footed stance — and, indeed, his incessant, codgy bitching about each accompanying can-you-believe-they-got-this-wrong? — is not my most pointed critique. It is, in effect, that Bryson refuses to leave a certain type of atmosphere, a collegial, upper-crust machination in which, yes, things go wrong, but at the end of the day he has that lawn, and he has that television, and he can laugh at what a silly day this day truly was! His world consists of tax forms and overfull refrigerators, of airport waits and compressed air. He exists within a welfare-less, travail-less — indeed, color-less — world, in which his family is always there, and his neighbors are always kind, and any social ill can be alleviated through a quick, comely pun. He lives, as it were, the whitest lifestyle possible. (Perhaps it’s lazy on my part to call Bryson’s softness ‘white,’ but I feel like it carries enough connotation for you to get the point.) The guy’s deepest troubles come when he finds himself unwittingly chased by an unleashed dog — not a pleasant experience, but nothing that anyone making less of $30,000/year would note as their bottom-out point.*
*[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.
Which is, of course, unceasingly unfortunate. As it is, comedy, at its finest, reveals the inner (yet inert) truths that have remained unsaid. Comedy can propel and unveil, all the while refusing to batter people over the head with ethical berating. To appreciate one’s flaws, as comedy exceedingly allows, is the first step toward alleviation and progress. Look no further than Stewart and Colbert to witness the genre’s potential. And Bryson would be in a perfect position — with his morals, with his language, with his eye — if only he had the balls to follow through.
As such, what I’m saying — what I’m cajoling, what I’m pleading — is that you, you out there with budding talent and a desire to write, you use your words for more than the cush, languid living in which Bryson revels. That you heave your blubber not from the television to the post office to the white-washed walls of academia, but that you pull yourself up and do something courageous. Go somewhere that’s fucking foreign. Because, Mr. Bryson, try as you may to entwine national identity between vegemite and marmite and peanut butter, there are people — large swaths of them, people who could actually use your writing for help — who really don’t give a shit about what kind of breakfast spread you like best. These are people and nations and problems out there that actually matter. These are the ones you need to be writing about.
So long as Bryson — a man, again, with impeccable talent in prose and form — sticks to hand-wringing over whether he’ll make his flight, or wondering how the British can stomach their food, or whether the squirrel he sees in the distance will attack him in his sleep, he should, and perhaps will, not earn a lasting stance within anyone’s rightful, respectful gaze. The man has kept from utilizing his talents to their fullest and moralistic affect. It is, in the end, cowardly. And it is a damned shame.