Reading the Screen: Bill Bryson Is a Real Trip

I know there have been rumors floating around for a couple of years, but I walk-woodskeep hoping they’re true, and someone really is making a movie out of Bill Bryon’s A Walk in the Woods (1998). Robert Redford is said to be “attached,” and maybe even Barry Levinson too. Get on with it, guys.

A Walk in the Woods is a splendid book, which should come as no surprise, if you have even a passing familiarity with Bryson’s books. If you’re not familiar with them, oh what fun you’ve been missing. His travel memoirs — Walk, Notes from a Small Island, Neither Here nor There, In a Sunburned Country, and more —  are beautifully written, wildly funny, endearingly cranky, and packed with charmingly offbeat characters and insightful, engaging, and frequently mind-boggling observations.

Notes from a Small Island, incidentally, was made into a six-part television series in 1999 or thereabouts. I haven’t seen it, but I’m keen to.

Bryson doesn’t limit himself to travel writing. He’s written two magnificent books about the English language, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) and Made in America (’98), which he somehow manages to make hugely educational and insanely funny (there’s that word again).

short-histA Short History of Nearly Everything, from 2003, is Bryson’s amazingly informative and — yes, I’m sorry, but it’s true — very funny history of, well, of science itself. As usual Bryson devotes plenty of time to the little-known, the underappreciated, the people who might rate only a footnote in somebody else’s book.

Bryson’s 2006 autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which focuses on his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, is a joy to read. Whether the Bill Bryson in the book is the real Bryson, or a lightly fictitious version of himself observed from four decades in the future, is a debate I’ll leave to the Literary Critics. For me, a huge Bryson fan — like you didn’t figure that out already — it’s a wonderful book, and I can’t wait for volume two.

I can’t over-emphasize — well, I probably can, but I’ll try not to — how notes-island1talented a writer Bryson is. I couldn’t tell you my favorite Bryson book if you put a gun to my head, but lately I’ve been coming back to Notes From a Small Island, and I’ll give you a paragraph from that, so you can get the flavor of Bryson’s writing. After a tedious and crowded train ride, Bryson has just arrived in the town of Retford, a place that gets few visitors.

Thus it was with some relief that I found myself, alone among the many passengers, alighting in Retford, an occurrence so unusual that it brought station employees to the windows, and walking into town through a clinging mist of rain. Retford, I am pleased to report, is a delightful and charming place even under the sort of oppressive grey clouds that make far more celebrated towns seem dreary and tired. Its centrepiece is an exceptionally large and handsome market square lined with a picturesque jumble of noble Georgian buildings. Beside the main church stood a weighty black cannon with a plaque saying ‘Captured at Sevastopol 1865,’ which I thought a remarkable piece of initiative on the part of the locals — it’s not every day, after all, that you find a Nottinghamshire market town storming a Crimean redoubt and bringing home booty — and the shops seemed propsperous and well ordered. I can’t say that I felt like spending my holidays here, but I was pleased to have seen it at last and to have found it trim and likeable.

And if that doesn’t make you stampede out to snatch up the collected works of Bill Bryson…well, I worry about you.



About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

2 Comments on "Reading the Screen: Bill Bryson Is a Real Trip"

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  1.' Pete says:

    I’ve read several of Bryson’s books, and A Walk In The Woods is definitely my favorite. Probably because it has narrative momentum (the story of him walking the Appalachian Trail with his oddball buddy) as opposed to being an anecdotal hodgepodge of observations.

  2. David Pitt says:

    Hey, Pete. Of all Bryson’s books I think A Walk in the Woods is probably the only one that would translate to film, because of that narrative momentum you mention.

    Have you listened to his books on audio? He reads some of them himself, and he’s exactly what you imagine when you read him.

    Not that you asked, but his funniest book? Neither Here Nor There, from 1991.

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