I love Bill Bryson. He’s a nonfiction writer who writes travelogues, and informational books. He grew up in the Midwest, and then he lived in England for twenty years before moving back to the United States. His stories are funny (a lot of dad humor), full of interesting facts (for example, stairs are very dangerous, and he has the data to prove it), and packed with charm. Reading them is like having a conversation with an old friend.
The first book I ever read of his was A Walk in the Woods, where Bryson hikes the Appalachian Trail with his crazy college roommate, Katz. I’ve given that book to friends countless times (and I always pick up any copies I see at used book stores). In time, I read all of his books. They are always particularly relevant to whatever I seem to be doing at the time, but it may be because he writes so universally.
When you read many books from one author, you pick up a lot about him or her (particularly with memoir*). Reading words from someone else, experiencing their point of view, hearing their vulnerabilities, creates this sense of camaraderie, even friendship. It’s the reason I write Christmas cards to, and drunk-tweet J.K. Rowling.
You can imagine then, the consternation, when the (rather obvious) realization hits that you are a stranger to that author. Someone can have this great ability to influence your life, your thoughts, your choices, and they don’t even know you! I had a friend once tell me that J.K. Rowling taught him to be a good person more than any person he knew in real life.
When Bill Bryson was giving a lecture in Santa Barbara last March (literally days before the Covid scare), I was bouncing with anticipation. I laid out all of his books and tried to decide which ones were my favorites, in case he did a signing.
I remember that I gave one about England (Notes From a Small Island) to my fiancé back when we started dating and I was about to move to Oxford. We still quote it to each other. “Blackpool is nothing if not fantastic, and it is not fantastic.”
My family had come to visit me in Ireland when I lived there, and we had Christmas at a bed and breakfast in Shrewsbury, England. We didn’t do big presents, but it was everyone’s favorite Christmas. I got my copy of At Home then. I used an excerpt of it in a Victorian food essay later that year too.
A Short History of Nearly Everything taught me nearly everything I know about science.
Any of his travel books are guaranteed to give me a good laugh, so I keep them by my bed in case I’m ever feeling blue.
So when I saw him in person, and he just smiled politely at me (probably annoyed that I was carrying a large pile of books for him to sign), it was an odd experience. Of course he was funny, informative, and delightful, but we are still strangers. It is odd to realize such things, but it is also incredible to reflect on the power and influence of books.