"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." —First line of Lost Continent
Des Moines, Iowa, USA-born journalist-turned-author. Moved to the UK as a young man and has since alternated continents of residence, providing him with a unique cross-cultural perspective that has in turn been translated into hilariously acerbic travelogues. More recently he has returned to his early focus on general socio-historical trivia.In his spare time he serves as the Chancellor (basically, honorary President) of Durham University and as a campaigner for various causes active in the preservation of historical UK buildings and landscape features.Books include:
A Dictionary of Troublesome Words (1982)
The Palace Under the Alps (1985)
The Lost Continent (1989)
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way (1990)
Ad Hominem: In One Summer: America 1927, Bryson slips into the "Poisoning the Well" variant during the discussion of the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, listing several facts about the two of them (they were card-carrying anarchists who knew other people guilty of bombings and such) that, while not casting the two in any particularly good light, also appear to have no bearing on them being guilty of the crime they were executed for. To be fair, he's obviously trying to be impartial, but it still comes across as this trope when nothing he says actually connects the two to the crime.
Artistic License - Biology: A very curious sentence (or very well disguised joke) in Down Under saying that breakfast is "our most savage event in Western society" and equating breakfast eggs with embryos. An unfertilised egg (i.e. almost all the ones sold for eating) is effectively a chicken's period.
Author Existence Failure: His old friend and frequent correspondent in Australia died just before he was due to visit her while writing Down Under so he offers a humorous tale she once told him as a tribute.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: In Notes From a Big Country (which is a collection of UK newspaper columns about life in the States) he falls heavily for a popular misquote of Mariah Carey.
Berserk Button: Ugly architecture generally and the removal of the UK's red phone boxes particularly.
Don't forget small movie theaters.
And the destruction of privet hedges.
And people not saying 'thanks' after holding door for them.
The "Rules for Living" chapter in Notes From A Big Country is a self-parody with the list of new regulations becoming increasingly authoritarian and suited to the author's whims - for example that "all reviews of the author's work must be cleared with the author beforehand".
Characterization Marches On: It is possible to track a distinct evolution in Bryson's attitudes and prejudices reading his books chronologically. He seems to become mellower and less judgmental in later books, perhaps as he becomes increasingly learned. In earlier books his treatment of women verges on outright misogyny, but in his most recent books he seems to have come over to the side of feminism (he uses 'she' as a default pronoun and is very active in documenting the achievements of women is his books about history and science, and is keen to denounce their often unacknowledged importance to their fields).The writer of books like 'A Short History Of Nearly Everything' and 'At Home' feels like a much more informed and open-minded man that the writer of 'The Lost Continent'.
Word of God in a BBC interview addresses this with Bryson admitting that much of his more snarky crude humour in early books came from general inexperience at having to write full length books and maintain the reader's attention.
Creator Breakdown: Bryson believes that if ever Shakespeare's own voice appears in his work it is in King John, written after Shakespeare's son Hamnet died: "Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form."
Creator Provincialism: Averted for the most part, but At Home in particular shows a fairly strong bias towards the UK and US in its descriptions of home life. The same applies to One Summer: America 1927, but that book is explicitly written to reflect an American point of view.
Cricket Rules: He has mentioned at one point that, to an American, any cricket fan's description of a match or its rules might as well be completely made-up, for how ludicrous it sounds.
From the point of view of a non-American, the parts of One Summer: America 1927 dealing with baseball read much like this. While there are a few explanatory footnotes here and there, Bryson doesn't appear to get how much about the game (i.e. pretty much everything) you'd have to explain to the average European.
Better than being hanged for impersonating an Egyptian.
Justified at the time. Before the Victorian Era, the likelihood of catching criminals in a big city like London was so incredibly low that the punishments for the few caught had to act as a deterrent.
And, in another place, justified or subverted: he discusses the cliche of people being dealt serious punishment (deportation, imprisonment etc) for the theft of a handkerchief. As he points out, this is nearly always given as an example of just how disproportionate punishment could be in the 17th and 18th centuries. But in fact, as Bryson goes on, silk would have been incredibly valuable, even rich people able to afford only a small handkerchief. It would probably have been the most valuable thing some middle-class people owned outside of their house.
Downer Ending: The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid is mostly a very cheerful, nostalgic autobiography about Des Moines in the 1950s and 1960s but the final chapter is something of a Tear Jerker as the fates of people and places are recalled; Bryson Sr. died in 1986, 'Milton Milton' died in the 1991 Gulf War, Jed Mattes died from cancer. Nearly all of the shops, diners, and other hangouts were closed and bulldozed, the city's elm trees all died off, the amusement park is now an empty lot. The last line is "What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid.”
Drive-In Theater: He once wrote about taking his family to one. It was a disappointing experience.
Early-Installment Weirdness: The Lost Continent was written by an angrier, less mature Bryson and it shows. Readers who begin with later works might be surprised at how acidic (and arguably elitist) Bryson was before he mellowed.
The Eighties: Writing The Lost Continent, Bryson is startled to see how much America had changed since The Sixties. Reading it today is reveals how much the country has changed since 1987-88. It's certainly one of the last works to mention strip clubs in Times Square.
Everything Trying to Kill You: His assessment of the local wildlife Down Under. Considering Australia even has its own header in the trope entry, he's probably right.
A Short History Of (Nearly) Everything goes one better, making it clear how fantastically improbable it is you even exist, let alone survived as long as you already have.
The improbability of your existence is also mentioned in Notes From a Small Island(unless it's a reprint to Short History...this troper hasn't read Short History for about two years... anyway, in Notes From a Small Island, Bryson states: "The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy. First, you were born. That in itself is a remarkable achievement. Did you know that each time your father ejaculated (and frankly he did it quite a lot) he produced roughly twenty-five million spermatozoa- enough to repopulate Britain every two days or so? For you to have been born, not only did you have to be among the few batches of sperm that had even a theoretical chance of prospering- in itself quite a long shot- but you then had to win a race against 24,999,999 or so other wriggling contenders, all rushing to swim the English Channel of your mother's vagina in order to be the first ashore at the fertile egg of Boulogne, as it were. And think: you could just have easily been a flatworm. Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. For endless eons you were not. That you are able to sit here right now in this once never-to-be-repeated moment, reading this, eating bon-bons, dreaming about hot sex with that scrumptious person from accounts, speculatively sniffing your armpits, doing whatever you are doing- just existing- is really a wonderous belief.Third, you have food, you live in a time of peace, and "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" will never be number one again."
Generation Xerox: I'm A Stranger Here Myself: When his son reads The Lost Continent and is amazed at how much Bill Bryson Sr. and Jr. seem to be alike. "I have to admit it, I have become my father. I even read license plates."
As early as The Lost Continent, he comments about his father's lack of direction and being a skinflint on family trips, and then proceeds to get hopelessly lost and complain about prices at various tourist attractions.
A Good Name for a Rock Band: Seemingly brought up, but then averted (perhaps deliberately) in At Home, when Bryson mentions in passing one Jethro Tull, inventor of the seed mill. At least some editions mention, on the very same page, a Bruce Campbell who bred cattle.
Gretzky Has the Ball: Done with deliberate comic exaggeration when trying to describe listening to cricket on Australian radio: "Tandoori took Rogan Josh for a stiffy at Vindaloo in '61"
Ignored Expert: On scientists: "First, they deny that it's true. Then, they deny that it's important. Finally, they give credit to the wrong person."
The Load: Katz in the early stages of the trek on Appalachian Trail.
Long List: Reporting on a waitress' offer of pie in Lost Continent: "We got blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry, huckleberry, whortleberry, cherry berry, hair berry, Chuck Berry, beri-beri and lemon."
Oop North: On first moving to the UK and marrying, he spent many years living in a remote village in Yorkshire.
He visits many parts of the industrial north in Notes From a Small Island and provides a poignant reflection on the proud heritage and natural beauty of the landscape contrasted with the industrial decline and high unemployment. At one moment he looks out at a valley of former mill towns and wonders what jobs the residents are actually doing now.
Porn Stash: Discovering his father's "modest girlie stash".
A childhood friend of his had a brother with an incredibly extensive one that was lethally booby trapped.
Puff of Logic: From near the beginning of A Short History Of Nearly Everything:
"It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you."
Repetitive Name: In Neither Here Nor There, he passes the time in a Swedish hotel room by noting the number of repeated names in a phone book. Turns out there are not a lot of unique surnames, in Sweden.
Science Marches On: The march of science itself is the subject of A Short History Of Nearly Everything.
Staircase Tumble: At Home investigates the number of people who've died falling down stairs and wonders why more research isn't done on the subject considering the death toll.
Take That: Frequent, and not at all subtle. See the page quote above.
Tar and Feathers: Writes in At Home of an unfortunate customs agent who was twice tarred and feathered during the Boston Tea Party of 1783.
Technology Marches On: The Gizmo-crazy hiker in Walk In The Woods is kitted out with technology that was advanced in 1997 (GPS, self-pitching tent) but is fairly standard fare now.
Unintentional Period Piece: The aforementioned Lost Continent; and A Walk in the Woods. Notes from a Big Country mostly because it deals with a mid-90's world just before the internet and cellphones became ubiquitous - Bryson mentions the difficulty of finding change for a payphone at the airport, the amount of mail order catalogues he's sent, sending faxes to the UK, and renting movies on videotape.
Violent Glaswegian: This seems to be where his experience in Glasgow is headed in Notes from a Small Island. It would probably have unsettled him more if he understood what they were saying.