The America We Hardly Know

You can know a country from its small towns and villages because the big cities are almost same everywhere. Bill Bryson’s A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America establishes that fact beyond any doubt. The America you meet in the small towns that Bryson takes you through are a world very different from how we know America.

Taken from Good Reads

You will meet American bigotry (against blacks), poverty, ignorance about the world beyond, tits and bits of history, encountering an America, in the process, which is anything but glamorous and alluring.

And along the way your constant companion will be Bryson’s whacky observations (some of which indeed make you laugh) and autobiographical details about growing up in small town America (Des Moines, Iowa), which always adds character to travelogues, as he takes you through the obscure towns and cities of America on his way back home several years after he settled in England with an English wife.

What stays with you finally are not so much the prosaic details about these places (some are not efficiently laid out, some are plain dirty, some have no proper eateries etc.) as much the America the country and society that emerges through them.

There are searing observations. In the North people don’t dislike blacks as overtly as they do in South. In the North the whites wish blacks all success in life, but avoid being seen socializing with them. Somewhere are deep: America is a country of small town values – hard work, religion etc.

Bill Bryson’s writing style is complete standup comedy. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it reads like the kind of comedy a group clown does while among his school friends, knowing that any joke is better than no joke.

But then I have my sympathies with Bryson. Writing a travelogue is not easy – keeping the reader interested with the most average matters of life can be tedious to write and to read a well, that’s why travel book writers resort to history and autobiographical details. Alas, some of the towns Bryson drives through are so utterly obscure and insignificant that probably there is no recorded history to fall back on.

Where there is nothing to build the narrative around you wade through page after page of gibberish or Brysonism about what he thinks about a bad TV anchor whose show he stumbled upon when he switched on the TV in a hotel room – expecting that a nice piece of history or sprinkling of autobiography is just round the corner. It’s not that your patience is never rewarded but sometimes you are also left with disappointment.

But when your patience is rewarded with a piece of history or an autobiographical slice, it’s like a crunchy chocolate nugget coming in to break the monotony of landmass of vanilla ice cream.

Bryson’s father is a recurring presence in the book reappearing to rescue his son over and over again. Bryson’s father grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and that left a lifelong impact on him: it made him extremely tightfisted – always looking out for opportunities to minimize expenditure. This fiscal restraint was a constant presence in Bill’s and his brother’s upbringing, staying in economy hotels when they went vacationing, which they did very often, eating at not so good hotels etc. This solid middleclass upbringing informs Bill Bryson’s worldview – an indifference to money and a loathing for extravaganza – which is evident through the book but prominently comes through when he visits Los Angeles, Nevada. But I also suspected he plays up the indifference to money and wealth thing a bit.

As much as Bryson sees everything American through the eyes of an insider someone who grew up in the country, Bryson also brings a refreshing perspective of an outsider, having stayed in England for many years.

When he happens to a backward place which has a reputation poverty stricken, he observes the houses seem to have everything you need for a decent living; yes, of course they don’t have air conditioners, fridges (the book was written may years ago) etc. – the quintessential American middle class gadgets – but that hardly makes them impoverished.

He continues that his father in law, in England, in his younger days was many years away from owning his own car and he never owned a firsthand car in his whole life; but no one called him poor or sent him aids. Observations like this save the book from becoming a dry tourist guide.

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is always fun to read. Lot of information, presented in a very interesting manner. But that’s not the only trait of Bryson’s writing. His writing is high energy and his humor is over the top, if a little low brow sometimes. There are very few serious moments – in fact he looks at anything serious with the smirk of a jester – and there is always a college buddy air to it. I am currently having lot of fun reading a travelogue by Bryson on small towns of America – and will write something on it when I finish it.

The book review below is on a Bryson book I had read many years ago and believe it is one of his most popular and best works – English the Mother Tongue coming very close. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson is a wafer thin hardbound book – I have never seen a paperback version – where Bryson recreates the times Shakespeare lived in and using very little credible information that’s available on the Bard creates a picture of him which at least told me things I never knew about the greatest writer in the English language. Enjoy.

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Anything about Shakespeare inspires two reactions: boredom and reverence. And this makes Shakespeare a bad topic for a book. That’s why credit should go to Bill Bryson for his Shakespeare for making it everything that a good book is – exciting and informative.

The problem about writing a biographical book on Shakespeare is that about most of his life there is no concrete record set in a tight chronological order. So you are left to rely on his plays and the times he lived in to track his life.

That’s precisely what Bill Bryson has done. He has brought Shakespeare to his readers through the times he lived in and relied on his plays to trace as much of Shakespeare’s life and world as the work of any writer can possibly reveal about its creator.

Bryson describes the England of Elizabethan times, the rule of the queen, life of commoners in London (where Shakespeare lived while working as a playwright), the personality of the queen, her relationship with the arts and artists (she was a patron of theatres and a tyrant too) and how theatres were run those days.

Bryson has handled his research material so well that you hardly feel there is very little Bryson has to offer about the main subject – Shakespeare. In fact, you will feel a picture of how Shakespeare would have lived his life in 16th century London taking shape behind the details of the times he lived in.

But Bryson has had to depend on this method mostly to describe Shakespeare’s life while he stayed in London because almost nothing is known about the part of life Shakespeare spent in London. Albeit, there are other parts of his life one can track through piecemeal records like court and marriage records and what is documented by earlier biographers.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford and went to school there. His father was a merchant and although the Shakespeares weren’t rich they didn’t lack for anything; however, William’s father fortunes declines towards the end of his life as fell upon hard times with his business failing leading to mounting loans. Shakespeare was a decent student and showed flair for Latin early on.

Shakespeare was an actor and a playwright. His entry into the world of theatres was dramatic. A troop was travelling to Stratford to stage a play and a fight broke out between two actors on the way. One actor died and when the troop reached Stratford, it took Shakespeare as a replacement.

Shakespeare’s plays were not greatly regarded in his days; some of his contemporaries’ plays were regarded more highly than Shakespeare’s. Not much literary value was attached with plays those days and they were considered means of earning a living through quick entertainment. This explains why Shakespeare’s works were not compiled with an intent to preserve them within his lifetime. Long after the death of Shakespeare someone compiled them as First Folio and later subsequent Folios were published by others.

The most formidable challenge Bryson has had to deal with in the book is to arrive at a conclusion on whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or someone else did it under the Bard’s identity for some consideration or other.

The jury is out on this to this day. There are two lobbies, one believes Shakespeare wrote those plays and the other that Shakespeare wasn’t educated and experienced enough to write those plays; that they had to be the work of a person who enjoyed a higher standing in the society (possibly an aristocrat) than Shakespeare did and due to his social position was better connected than Shakespeare; had more access to the workings of royal courts (to have written about court intricacies in the plays) and, of course, was better educated.

Detractors of Shakespeare have found many to have these qualifications who lived at or around the time of Shakespeare and each one of the detractors has his/her own Shakespeare number two and individual theories to establish their claims.

Bryson has used many arguments to debunk the claims and the central one is, although Shakespeare hadn’t received any university education as there was no university in Stratford, he had finished his school education. Overcoming his deficiencies to write those plays would be, in any case, a great achievement, which, however difficult, wouldn’t be impossible, Bryson observes.

And there are country scenes in Shakespeare’s plays whose inspiration could be traced back to his growing years in Stratford. Bryson finishes the book by concluding that it was none other than Shakespeare who wrote the plays and poems we attribute to him – “whoever he was”.

A deficiency of the book is that Bryson didn’t tell much about the division between Latin and English and why exactly even plays enacted with the royalty in audience was played in English while Latin was the court language.