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The Cowardice of Bill Bryson

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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.

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About Casey Michel

  • RJ

    A little insight oh, recent university graduate…. Bill Bryson–to a lesser degree–is like the Bob Marley of writing: he’s one of those mind-expanding college experiences that you outgrow with time.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Yep, and when you’re all grown up you’ll start listening to Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, Kenny G, and other respectable “adult” artists. That’s the age when your mind stops “expanding,” too.


  • http://cinemasentries El Bicho

    Why would someone outgrow Marley? Must be the pursuit of mind-numbing endeavors like watching football. Sounds more like ignorance instead of insight

  • MJB

    Surely you miss the point that Bill Bryson’s aim is to hold the mirror up to ourselves, those college-educated, relatively comfortable, predominantly white westernised people and show us some of the absurdity of that life. He writes about what he knows and is, but not in an entirely celebratory way. You’re surely meant to find the faults and maybe have a second thought about some of the comforts he describes.

    To suggest that he doesn’t take a stance is bordering on absurd. Granted, it may be a subtle, gentle stance but anyone who has read his critique of America’s death penalty can’t help but note what side he comes down on – seeing it for the cruel, hypocritical, outdated and brutal form of punishment that it is.

  • peter.smith

    MJB is right. Bill Bryson as a writer purports to be no more than what he is. Casey Michel wants him to be somebody else. Referring to the ‘cowardice’ of Bill Bryson is ridiculous. It’s like criticizing apples because they don’t taste enough like oranges.

  • thechairman

    That would be the most pompous, over-written article I’ve ever read in my life. Somebody give you thesaurus?

  • Casey

    RJ — Not that I could comment on Marley, but I just received a poster of him from a few friends back home. Don’t think my host babushka would appreciate a photo of him toking up on my wall, but we’ll see.

    MJB — That point is easily understood. And he’s very successful in it — never will I look at another tax form or thirty-second drive the same. And I’d not say that he’s NEVER taken a stance — simply that, when he does, he wilts before it ever becomes anything of substance. The man’s an amazing writer — there’s little argument from anyone on this. But what dose he use that writing for? Lamenting the fact that he’s too fat to tie his own shoes? C’mon, man. Point is: Do something meaningful with your writing. Don’t just wile away the hours writing about that skunk that keeps coming back to your house.

    peter.smith — No one ever accused Bryson of being a hypocrite. Rather, it’s that basic stance — that he’d rather live a bubble-wrapped existence, where no risks are taken and little change is affected — that makes him a coward. (Or, I suppose, entirely ignorant of his own potential, which is just as much of a shame.)

    Thechairman: Sorry if the words are a bit long. (Internet’s a helluva resource.) Now back to the content…

  • Gabble

    An interesting and I have to say, well written passage. You are obviously a writer of talent, despite what some of the caustic remarks have said. But your style and tone are not all that is showing; there is unfortunately a little observed immaturity in depth.

    I get what you are saying about Bill Bryson, of course I do, but I think you somehow miss something along the way. Bill Bryson, thankfully, is not a tortured soul, and to be honest that’s quite refreshing indeed. Most gratuitous talent for prose emanates from madness of some guise, and spills out in contemporary fashion to the delight of those who feel they are as smart as the author. I’m not in any way saying this is wrong, just that a little maturity starts to point this out without even trying. So it’s quite hard to explain.

    I am a genuine and absolute admirer of Bill Bryson’s novels. Like you I picked up ‘Short history’ for what is now a non memorable reason, and was stunned that I’d never been drawn in some way towards his writing before. I found it odd that none of my peers or educators had pointed him out. But theres the thing; his books reside in the travel section of bookshops, so usually the home these days of TV presenters or decent – but not great – journalists and non entities. So perhaps Bill becomes a bit of a guilty secret in some way. All my years and nobody told me about him, man that’s so hard to believe. I have read and re-read; listened to all his tales on audiobook over and over, and even gone as far as downloading different narrators so I can hear-it-all-again and again. Either way it works. It just does.

    We know that he’s a gentle spirit and very self deprecating with an eye for making the most mundane subject marvellously interesting. Moreover his memoirs don’t recount tales of debauchery, drugs or death – well perhaps a mention or two in ‘Short History’ ?” but I’m sure you know what I mean. And if they did he wouldn’t be Bill Bryson. It’s his personality that makes his prose work so well, and his prose that presents his personality. Either way it works. It just does.

  • Casey


    Thanks for the compliments. No argument that it’s nice to see someone as fluid and talented as Bryson come without a Xanax prescription or overwhelming drinking problem. I’d never complain about his entertainment value, his talents, his ‘gentle spirit’ and knack for self-deprecation. It’s simply that, as I wrote above, such spirit or deprecation can’t exist within a vacuum, and comes at the expense of writing about issues of greater magnitude than just what’s-with-all-these-buttons-on-the-remote?

    Maybe it’s an issue of maturity, but I’d like to think the lack would come from his La-Z-Boy rather than my Siberian hideaway. Fortunately, Bryson’s still got decades left, so perhaps he’ll turn. But I won’t hold my breath.

  • Colin Casey

    There are many writers out there who tackle the issues outlined in this article. Complaining that Bryson writes about what he writes about is a lille like complaining that Guinness produce stout and not latex bondage gear.
    He writes for an audience that is clearly there. And if you want people to write about marginalised issues, do it yourself.

  • Casey

    I try to, and will continue to do so in the future — though I’d stake that any issue that betters and educates is hardly “marginalized.” Anyway, it appears as if you’ve missed the point of the piece. It’s wonderful that there are “many writers out there who tackle the issues outlined in this article.” Unfortunately, it’s not as if there is a glut, a preponderance of writers who drown out one another in seeking to better their worlds. It’s completely subjective, but it would appear that these writers form but a small (though dedicated) fraction of the writing pantheon. And it is clear that Bryson, despite his occasional moralizing, doesn’t fall in this camp. Imagine the kind of good he could engender if he shifted his priorities from one-offs to actual impact. Imagine the kind of benefit he could generate if he stopped plying for little laughs and instead tried to educate, to illuminate, in matters that actually, um, mattered. Imagine if he were to join those “many writers out there.” But he hasn’t, and it seems he won’t, which, as I said above, is a shame, and a waste.

  • gabe

    You obviously have never read Bill Bryson’s African Diary. Let us remember that you know nothing about this man and what he does with his time aside from the snippets you see in his writing. A man who shuns celebrity as completely as Mr Bryson are not going to capitalize on his popularity to build a soapbox. It also seems as though he has a much greater understanding of human nature than some. You can’t open minds by clubbing them upside the head with a stick. Often it is better to merely illuminate, as Bryson does masterfully, and allow people to moralize on their own. Intelligent individuals don’t need to be instructed on how to think or act once an issue is brought to their attention. Judgmental, moralizing, preachy authors don’t have millions of fans. That is a much bigger population reached than if he alienated readers by becoming an obnoxious, whistle-blowing, finger-pointer as some would suggest. Lets not bash the man for being funny and writing what he knows – no one does it better. He leaves the pomposity to others.

  • Casey

    You’re right — I haven’t read African Diary, and it’s comforting to note that Bryson spent at least a fraction of his time dedicated to messages above and beyond his humor. Still, that part is mitigated and outweighed by the litany of other pieces he’s written. And you’re precisely correct when you write that I know little-to-nothing about his free time. It’s entirely possible that he spends his free time not wheedling about his house, haranguing his wife, but instead ladling soup for the needy of Hanover.

    But why would you refrain from championing the causes to which you devote these (presumed) massive chunks of your time? Why would you remain silent when your words — your unabashed humor; your unmatched skills — could be used as tools to multiply, perhaps exponentially, the impact that you’ve thus far made? Why would you hide this side from the world, when you know full well that myriad causes, local and otherwise, need the aid and effort of which you could so eloquently write? Why remain silent?

    There are multitude ways to hawk causes without “build[ing] a soapbox,” and no one ever claimed he’d ever become an “obnoxious, whistle-blowing, finger-pointer.” You can write toward a method of improvement without coming off as “pompous.” There are narratives, and characters, and journeys about which he could inform the reader. There are periodicals and journals for the already interested in which he could write. There are a thousand ways he could use his writing — that is, the majority of his writing — to affect the change that he may or may not champion in his free time. He chooses none of them.

    (On a side note, it seems like you’re claiming “whistle–blowing” would somehow alienate readers. I’ve yet to see an instance in which alienating readers for some greater good — be it apolitical whistle-blowing, or anything of the sort — is something that should be avoided. Moral break-down for the sake of retaining readership is cheap and hollow.)

    It’s wonderful, I suppose, that Bryson shuns celebrity. It’s nice to have a man who lacks pomposity and arrogance, and who so willingly shares his talent. It’s nice. But that’s not enough. To turn one’s back on an obvious route toward “good” — to ignore the opportunity of turning one’s tools toward those without — is a moral failing. He’s funny, sure, and he writes about what he knows (though you’re clearly implying that a lay-scholar as learned as Bryson couldn’t find a bit of time to research X, Y, and Z). But until he takes a stance on, well, anything, he’s but another soft-in-the-middle comic who shuns development for book sales.

  • Sanjay Singh

    Bryson is NOT a travel writer…he probably writes travel books out of choice….he is a researcher who gives us his findings and enlightens us in an absolutely brilliant and endearingly humourous way!

  • Catherine Bryson

    You write this like you know him well, and you clearly don’t as this is very far from the truth.

  • Catherine Bryson

    Oh and one more thing, no he doesn’t spend his time ‘ladling soup for the needy of Hanover’ as he hasn’t lived there for nine years.

  • Casey

    I wrote this piece based on his catalog, not based on any interactions, Catherine. This is obvious. The entire conceit of this piece is that Bryson’s wasted both talent and opportunity, settling, in his public sphere, for the milquetoast lifestyle he so clearly enjoys, instead of utilizing his marked skills to write for any greater good, or any greater push for good. If you can argue this point, fine. But please don’t mis-represent my words.

    And your comment that ‘he hasn’t lived there for nine years,’ as well as your name, implies that you may know Bill. If so, please pass this piece along, and cajole him into utilizing his writing for those who could truly use it, or in a manner that could actually make a difference.

  • Dr Dreadful

    cajole him into utilizing his writing for those who could truly use it, or in a manner that could actually make a difference.

    Again, Casey, as you’ve been asked several times, why should he?

    There are plenty of writers who write very effectively about the evils of the world. There are plenty who don’t. Why does Bryson, of all people, need to be one of those who do?

    Your criticism makes no sense. It’s like decrying Tim Tebow for using his talents to pursue a career in the NFL rather than coaching kids.

  • Casey

    Why should he? Because he can. (I’m unsure as to how to italicize in the comments, but imagine I used it here.) Indeed, there are plenty of writers — hundreds, thousands, more — who are in the same boat. I singled out Bryson because his talent, in my mind, surpasses most, and yet is squandered for chit-chat about what he’s found in his pantry, or lard-about walkings through places we already know. I chose Bryson because he *could* have gone to these foreign areas, but *didn’t.* I’m singling out Bryson because, as someone with his moral bent, he’s obviously attuned to issues of ignorance and environment, and well-placed to address them. But he *doesn’t.*

    FWIW, Tebow, at the least, avails himself to using his talents to make some semblance of positive, meaningful difference. He’s modeled himself in a manner that is remarkable, and can influence those who would have otherwise gone without such role model. Tebow’s achieved the greatest venue for parlaying this message. Bryson, after reaching his apex, instead chooses to waddle through and forgo any touchy subject. He avoids controversy like it’s ebola. He avoids alienation of any readership, and for that, and the reasons cited above, displays cowardice.

  • Dr Dreadful

    That’s just it, Casey. This is in your mind. You don’t know that he’d be good at writing that sort of thing; you just think he would.

    And it still doesn’t mean he should. Just because Bryson writes about travel, and writes it well, doesn’t mean that he has to be a literary ambassador for the world’s problems, any more than it means Arthur Frommer has to.

    Let’s try this. I might look at your work and think to myself that you could write one heck of a crime novel. But I’m not going to write an article calling you a coward if you don’t.

    (Incidentally, to put something in a comment in italics, you put the letter “I” in between angled brackets (< and >) at the beginning of what you want to italicize, then “/I” between angled brackets to close the italics. (You don’t need the quote marks!) If you prefer emphasizing in bold type instead, you can put “B” instead of “I”. PLEASE remember to close italics, because if you don’t it italicizes everything else below it on the page!)

  • Casey

    You’re exactly right: I only surmise, based on his past moralizing and writings, that he could easily transfer his skills into something meaningful, and less white-bread. It’s presumption, perhaps, but only in the sense that he’s not seen it through. And I’d maintain that his cowardice reveals itself once more in the fact that he’s never made such a stab. He’s never moved beyond his comfort. He’s never taken a chance.

    But that’s only part of my argument. The second part lies in the fact that he’s relegated himself to the higher reaches of the First World. He squishes himself into the Anglo-sphere — forgoing South Africa, India, Belize, etc. — and has displayed an unwillingness to move into anything foreign, into anything that would reveal the Other, very much still around, to an American audience. And that has nothing to do with writing for a cause or a concern — it’s the exact same as he’s done in Western Europe, or the Antipodes. He’s a proven travel writer. Why won’t he spend that travel writing flitting through somewhere that could, as it were, actually use it?

    Had Bryson traveled through, say, Iranian flats, or the northern Caucuses, or inner Baghdad, his readership would not only have a further fleshed-out idea of the peoples and cultures composed — it would have a humanizing, mitigating affect when war-drums begin. It would tighten bonds that seem disparate, and would allay tension on personal and political levels. But, instead, Bryson’s fine with Parisian wine, or Australian beer, or British grog. He lets the truly foreign nations — the ones of which the American populace should be educated — alone. (And FWIW, Frommer at least promoted excursions to such foreign lands. Stuck in Bryson’s world, you’d never know these lands existed.)

  • Dr Dreadful

    Perhaps the subject matter simply doesn’t interest him as a writer, Casey – just as writing a crime novel might not interest you, much as I might think you’d be great at it.

    (Oh, and nice job with remembering to close your italics! 😉 )

  • El Bicho

    Casey, sounds like the people who whined about Dylan going electric. You aren’t his publisher, so why do you think you get to dictate how he uses his skills?

    If you think something is not being covered that should be, go cover it yourself. Otherwise, don’t project your cowardice on others.

  • zingzing

    “Why would someone outgrow Marley?”

    because when someone digs into reggae, they find a much richer world than “legend.” marley was played to death in college, particularly “legend,” and it’s pretty much driven me away from him. he writes okay songs, but many are incredibly sanitized for white people consumption. (and yes, i do realize that his stuff was designed to be beyond its reggae context for various reasons, although those reasons are pretty much limited to “goes good with a toke” these days.)

    that said, the weirder strains of reggae are completely fascinating. and keith hudson (yes, that’s a real link…) shoulda been marley. or shoulda been the next marley. not that he didn’t give it a shot… on-u, studio one, wackies, basic channel and basic replay, upsetters stuff… so much goodness out there beyond the marley trap.

    marley is to reggae as nickelback is to rock, if only in popularity and blandness. marley is better than nicelback though. not that that needed saying. not that any of this does…

    funny to agree with rj on anything. just can’t stand marley. ugh.

  • Casey

    Entirely possible that it doesn’t interest him. My argument’d be that his interests should take back-seat to his potential. Great power, great responsibility, etc.

    Ha, glad I got the italics down — I’m glad to be done with those asterisks. And, strangely, you’re the second person in as many weeks that’s suggested I write crime fiction. May give it a stab. BlogCritics will be the first to know.

  • Dr Dreadful

    strangely, you’re the second person in as many weeks that’s suggested I write crime fiction.

    Weird. I only suggested it as a hypothetical. Perhaps there’s the germ of a plot for a crime novel there somewhere:

    “Peace Corps veteran turned blogger Casey thinks nothing of it when two apparently unconnected people both suggest he should write crime fiction. But he’s soon caught up in a sinister plot involving a professional football star, a respected travel writer, and a mysterious code that makes everything he types appear slanted. Then Casey is framed for murder, and to clear his name he must run for a touchdown, find out what really happened to Bob Marley, and get to the heart of the conspiracy…”

  • Zingzing

    Religion happened to marely, right? If only he’d gotten that toe taken care of…

  • Casey

    El Bicho — I’m not entirely sure how you gathered I was projecting my own cowardice onto Bryson (or is opting for Peace Corps service a new badge of the meek?). Seems more ad hominem-ish than well-argued. Likewise, the comparison with Dylan’s a false dichotomy — Bob, at the least, took overtly controversial, or perhaps ahead-of-the-curve, stances, be it through anti-war, anti-poverty, or anti-incarceration-of-XX themes. Dylan’s move to electric has nothing to do with anything.

    And I think ‘Marley’s Toe’ is going to be the name of the first novel. I’m gonna rely on you guys for research, and musical inspiration.

  • Catherine Bryson

    You’re right, I do know him. He is my Dad, and no I won’t be passing this on to him as he has much better things to do than read this nonsense.

  • Miller

    What a crying shame! Too bad buddy. You ever think he may not be effective at writing about world problems? Besides, who wants to read about that crap 24/7? It’s nice to read something that’s amusing and entertaining without bringing up hard-edged social issues. He should have been a raging alcoholic. That way you wouldn’t have anything to write about because he wouldn’t have published any books. Crybaby!

  • Ray Parvin

    If I want to be depressed I can read a newspaper or listen to the news or the opinions of so many well educated, well meaning people who only wish to show how clever thay are.
    I want to be entertained in a light hearted fashion and Brysons books achieve that.

  • Ed Nauen

    Lighten up fella! He is a humourist, that’s just what he does and he does it well, why berate him for that? You aren’t entirely correct anyway, I am guessing you aren’t aware of “African Diary” and you seem to have missed (or are ignoring for rhetorical purposes) the parts in “Down Under” where he writes about Australia’s shameful treatment of the Aborigines (as well as referring to Pilger’s work, I bet a lot of people read Pilger because of Bryson – not somebody that can be accused of political cowardice) But even if he had just stuck to light humour, there is nothing wrong with that, not every book has to be an earnest political diatribe . If it matters so much to you that a book should exist, Mr Bryson sure isn’t stopping you from writing it now is he? PS, if you want another great travel writer with less focus on Whitey, may I suggest the brilliantly talented William Dalrymple – a learned, funny and insightful writer and historian. All the best.

  • Ed Nauen

    PPS. Catherine, you lucky thing, wish he was my dad! If you ever want to get rid I will give you a fair price.

  • Richard

    To say that he is squandering his talents is incredibly narrow-minded of you. I teach chemistry and can tell you that what you consider “gap-filling” to adults is the greatest introduction to science I’ve encountered when students read it, which is a hell of a lot more important than him ranting about social issue #13428.

    Also, there are enough Naomi kleins in the world and not enough David Sedarises as it is.

    Perhaps he finds that his writing would become overbearing if he addressed The issues head-on. His style doesn’t suit scathing insight – whenever he gets close to that, he comes off as a bit prissy. It’s more effective for him to briefly allude to the perils of the modern social structure. Anymore than that and he’d be another throwaway in the current affairs section instead of the bestselling nonfiction British writer.

  • Richard

    Also, we’re very proud of your peace corps volunteering. I’m glad you can use it for leverage to call people cowards when they don’t do their job the way you think they should. So brave of you.

  • P Foss

    Sorry if I’m a little late to the party, everyone.

    Casey, what you’re suggesting Bryson to do is to start writing pieces that are fundamentally non-Bryson. It is obviously apparent that you admire the man’s ability and writing style but have grown tired of his books’ content. Perhaps it is time to move on and address these issues yourself rather than sitting on the internet and passively prodding established authors to do it for you.

    Your article implies that all Bryson does is sit comfortably at home before flitting out to another first-world country, wandering around, and then churning out another book. This is entirely incorrect. Bryson has travelled to many of the troubled countries that you have listed in both your article and subsequent comments: South Africa, Israel, Palestine – to highlight but a few.

    Bryson’s readers are predominantly from westernised countries. He has become successful – not because of his ability to preach – but because of his social, cultural, and satirical commentary. His readers would not appreciate anything else. It would be irrelevant for him to write about the difficulty in finding a hotel in Mongolia or ordering breakfast in Sierra Leone.

    What you suggest is that Bryson switch from commentary to activism, which is absurd.

    Your entire argument is faulty and your article erroneous. You accuse Bryson of being stubborn and cowardly, yet you have read (and responded to) a plethora of comments telling you otherwise, and still you maintain your opinion. This is admirable but altogether foolish and ironic.

    As another commenter also suggested, I implore you to take a look at ‘African Diary’ which he wrote on behalf of CARE International. It’s less than 100 pages long so shouldn’t take you too long to get through.

    It’s great that you have read and enjoyed some of his work, but I’m sorry that you also got lost on the way.

  • Casey

    P Foss,

    I appreciate the well-thought comment, as well as the constructive critiques. In attempting to broach some of the arguments you’ve laid forth, I’ll attempt a bit of fisking:

    – The term ‘non-Bryson’ is, though perhaps apparent, a bit vacuous; I’d attempted to display why such potential pieces lie withIN Bryson’s sphere of talent, rather than withOUT. That is, there’s little — other than the pre-described lethargy or stodginess I’d presumed — that would have prevented Bryson from inlaying his unalloyed talent on, say, Eastern Europe, or the former Dutch Indies. The only thing linking his travel works — disregarding his African Diary piece, which seems far less polished, and certainly far shorter, than any other stab — lie in the First Worldedness of it all. He and his works exist only within a certainly monetary sphere. But even then, classist lines are too broad, as he fails to write on Japan, Singapore, etc. He has opted, instead, for the toddering White Man’s World. It’s, I dunno: a reverse Orientalism? Pure laze? Something else entirely?

    – You mention that his readers wouldn’t appreciate anything beyond the social, cultural, and satirical commentary of the westernzsed world. (I paraphrase, but I believe that’s the fair assessment.) But, then: African Diary. Likewise, such assessment places the blame for his lack of … courage? challenge? on the readers, and likewise portrays Bryson as one striving for some measure of success — fiscal or otherwise — in lieu of less trivial pursuits. Noting that the readers would not appreciate — relate, perhaps; but appreciate? — anything else is, of course, erroneous, as any travel section attendant will explain. Bryson could make any scene rapturous. He could make any of his (otherwise intelligent) readership appreciate any stemwinder, any setting.

    – It’s wonderful that Bryson has traveled to these countries — to Israel, to South Africa. Now, imagine what Bryson — touched with a tad of courage — could accomplish should he actually WRITE on the situations observed. If he took his Australian backstories and transmuted them onto Israel, hell; you don’t think it may have a bit of effect on the apartheid syndrome biting Israeils? Or on the Zuma regime’s backwardness? Or, so we don’t go striding too far down the liberal path, the fracture left by the PLO? Or are we only to read about Bryson’s observations on silly Italian vintners?

    – Commentary and activism are, prima facie, not mutually exclusive; written activism is, at its deepest core, naught but commentary — the melding of observation and opinion, but with a sharpened front. (As it is, and this is off on another tangent entirely, it’s not enough for Bryson — for anyone — to be but a messenger. But that’s another’s time.)

    – As it is, ‘passively prodding established authors’ to work in such a vein is but part of a multi-pronged approach to working in this world. Much of my writing over the past year’s been used to address multiple human rights violations in Central Asia, attempting to humanize the plights such that mere numbers don’t fall on deaf ears. Again, all that I ask would be for you to imagine Bryson’s impact, should he so choose to direct his writing to a populace that could use it.

    – The man’s more talent in his left hand than most bloggers have in their entire URL; the man’s an obvious penchant for travel, and a remarkable tic for conveying those travels; and yet the man settles on conveying esoterica of the (relative) upper crust. I call it cowardly. You call it successful. They’re not mutually exclusive. Never have been, never will be.

  • Casey


    It’s … remarkable that you would seemingly denigrate someone for pursuing a pace of activism, rather than First World social comedy. It is, likewise, unfortunate. For while Sedaris and Bryson will bring a bit of levity to the audience’s otherwise posh days, Klein et al. will be those attempting the betterment of the worlds around them, of, ideally, using their remarkable talents to voice the voiceless. I’m not sure why you’d attempt to demean that.

    And while I enjoy your liberal use of capitalization — as well as the observation that my Peace Corps service somehow gives me reign to cajole fellow writers to, ya know, write for something better — I also appreciate your service as a teacher, and commend you. If there’s one shift I would hope to make to the piece above, it would lie in addressing Bryson’s scientific pieces. Such are, unfortunately, increasingly necessary if we are to achieve any form of political progress.

  • Marv

    I think you are over-analysing his work. Just enjoy it for what it is, and if you don’t like it, don’t read it. He never claims he is going to change the world. He has a style and he sticks to it.

  • Bill Walker

    Gotta’ admit, both the writer of this substantive article, as well as his critics, made some thought-provoking analyses. Yes, Bryson does make it look easy. He seems a little like Tiger Woods–he learned this craft at a very young age; it is ingrained in his DNA.

    As a member of the Appalachian Trail community, as well as fellow author, I join the chorus of trail critics in calling him out in reaping so much from the Appalachian Trail, yet giving little to nothing back (ex. he is not a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservatory). Hopefully, he has read your article and will integrate some its critiques into his future efforts.

  • John Nations

    This is a fantastic essay, and I thank you for it. I have been a Bryson
    fan since an English girl turned me on to “Neither Here Nor There” while
    I was in London in 1999, and I have read all his travel books and a few
    of the stay-at-home/library research ones as well. I enjoy re-reading
    his books and listening to his self-read audiobooks about once every 2
    years or so. I even flew myself to Sydney (and went broke in the
    process) because I loved “In a Sunburned Country” so much. I’m
    definitely a Bill Bryson fan, and would love to meet him–but here I
    have to say, I’ve always thought a lot about these very issues that you
    have crystallized: he’s talented, but lazy; he travels, but never
    outside his comfort zone; he knows he’s not as healthy or fit as he
    could be, but never uses his substantial wealth to champion nutrition or
    fitness, and he’s critical, but puts no non-literary muscle behind his
    valid criticisms (apart from his British anti-litter campaign). I
    understand, of course, that when Bryson first started writing, he had to
    worry about getting published, getting sold, and making a living, so
    that in his early work, humor and snappy vignettes took priority over
    activism. Now, however, as a multi-millionaire with near-global name
    recognition, he has a responsibility to put some teeth into his bites,
    rather than briefly snarling like the dogs (apart from Dewey) who always
    intimidate but never quite catch his doughy flesh in their jaws.

    also find Bryson’s Anglo-centrism quite grating. Like him, I was born
    in America, but I got my degree in French, learned Spanish in Florida,
    Norwegian in Norway, and now live in Germany where I’m attempting to
    master that language. I know that’s not impressive when compared to the
    work of your colleagues in Sudan and Palestine, but for a financially
    challenged South Carolina boy, it’s a start, and I find that for every
    glowing sentence Bryson has typed in adoring praise of English–for its
    town names, its colorful expressions, and its charming or baffling
    colloquial variants–there is just as much to be said about French, the
    Scandinavian tongues and maybe even German (even though I’m still a
    newbie with this last one). Bryson has every right to be a fan, as I am,
    of the English tongue, but his claims that English is so rich, textured
    and versatile seem hollow in light of the fact that he has no
    experience speaking or reading anything else.
    I don’t want to seem
    too harsh on this man, since his works have eliminated travel tedium and
    mental restlessness in many of my countless buses, airplanes, waiting
    lounges and youth hostels. I treasure Bryson’s books, and always have at
    least one of them with me on my own journeys, some Brysonian in their
    comfort, others shockingly spartan if not foolishly low-budget. I do
    appreciate that Bryson wrote his African Diary for charity, and even
    more that he has become an anti-litter activist in his home country of
    England. His heart is, I believe, in the right place, but he could do a
    lot more. As a struggling artist, I always have enough money to live,
    but never any extra with which to fight the battles our world needs to
    win. Authors like Bryson, and my other favorite, Dave Barry, should use
    some of their ample wealth and free time to knock a few jaded, fat,
    corrupt corporate and government heads together in public ways that we
    readers and like-minded thinkers can get behind.

    So thanks a lot
    for your essay “The Cowardice of Bill Bryson.” You elucidate perfectly
    my long-held but largely unuttered criticisms of a man who has greatly
    improved my life as a reader and traveler.

    As a side note, if
    Bryson is mainly going to write books about mountains rather than
    attempting to move them, I hope he’ll take your words as a challenge and
    give us another travel book about some exotic part of the world that I
    can’t afford to explore. Unlike him, I have to pay out of my own meager
    funds when I hop an ocean or stay at a string of hotels. He’s in a
    position to craft a lot more travel writing than most travel writers
    are, and after “At Home,” which mainly led him to explore his own drafty
    house and some dusty old British traditions, he must be itching to find
    his road legs once more.

  • Richard Lawrence

    All I can say is that ‘The Lost Continent’ was precisely the kind of angry work you suggest he should write, and that by sticking to areas he knows and lives in, those kind of societies he is better placed to pick out hypocrisies. Besides there is another travel writer who does the exotic stuff and who is in some ways better and other ways worse but worth a read… Paul Theroux. Between Theroux and Bryson, who else do you need? Well what about the writer of ‘Blood River’ or countless others who do do the writing you want to see but aren’t heard of.

    I think you mistake why Bryson is popular.

  • Jude

    Short-sighted, nearly blind, by any measure of criticism

  • Stephen J

    Yeah… and Jim Carey is a coward because he keeps making comedies when he could be using his acting talent to make hard-hitting documentaries about Syria. I mean, what the hell were you thinking when you wrote this article?


    Reading this review, all I could think of was how embarrassed I am to share sovereignty with such people. Regardless of Bryson’s views, he has the ability of putting abstract concepts into perspective. I do not agree with most of his philosophy, however, I do pay respect to his observations. His ability to place abstract concepts into perspective warrant respect and reverence. Most people do not question the world around them–Bryson does. Regardless of philosophy his observation and analysis deserve respect.

  • New2NewStatesman

    This is a terrible essay; openly xenophobic and racist. It is not merely lazy of you to “call Bryson’s softness ‘white’”, it is morally negligent, and to tar an entire nation’s people with the same brush is even worse.

    To say that all all English people “totter along as children of the Empire” oblivious to the world’s problems and with all their needs met is ridiculous. To suggest that Bryson’s writing style has anything to do with his second-home nation’s imperialist past is laughable. And to mock England for having democracy is nonsensical.

    Your argument collapses completely when one considers that George Orwell, who really did profit from the Empire (his father was an executive in the shameful opium trade between British India and China), was one of the twentieth century’s great moral writers. Privilege and an indifference to humanity’s needs rarely go hand in hand.

    It is simply wrong to say that a specific skin-colour or social background is always conducive to a particular behaviour or outlook. Throw Steinbeck aside for a moment, pop Kerouac in the bin, and read some flippin’ Orwell.

  • Mark J. MacDonald

    Two words for you, Mr. Michel: shut up. Or perhaps more to the point: jealous much?

  • Glen


  • Vickie

    At some point, youth cannot be used as an excuse for ill-considered or — truth be told — asinine polemics. Casey Michel, your racism and overall douchebaggery are duly noted.