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Creator / Bill Bryson

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"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."
—first line of The Lost Continent

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, born 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, is an American-British journalist-turned-author. He 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. He now has dual citizenship of the two countries. In his more recent books he has returned to his early focus on general socio-historical trivia.

Bryson's breakout to celebrity status in Britain came with 1995's Notes From A Small Island, describing what was at the time a farewell tour of the country he decided to take before moving his family back to the US — though it turned out that 8 years later they would return to England, where he has lived ever since. It was a huge number-one bestseller when it was first published, and has become one of Britain's most loved books, going on to sell over two million copies.

During his spell back Stateside he wrote the 1998 account of his attempt to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, A Walk In The Woods, which has become perhaps his best-known work there. In 2015 a movie adaptation was released in which the bespectacled, bearded writer was, to his own not inconsiderable astonishment, portrayed by Robert Redford. The pleasure of this was dampened only slightly by the forty-something Bill in the book being depicted on screen by a seventy-eight-year-old Redford; as Bryson ruefully noted, the latter still looked better at nearly 80 than he himself had in his forties...

In his spare time he has served 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. He has nearly a dozen honorary doctorates from universities in the UK and Iowa.

Books include:

  • A Dictionary of Troublesome Words (1982)
  • The Palace Under the Alps (1985)
  • The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1989)
  • The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990)
  • Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe (1991)
  • Notes From a Small Island (1995)
  • A Walk In the Woods (1998)
  • Notes From a Big Country (US: I'm A Stranger Here Myself) (1999)
  • Down Under (US: In A Sunburned Country) (2000)
  • Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (2001)
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006)
  • Shakespeare: The World as Stage (2007)
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010)
  • One Summer: America 1927 (2013)
  • The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island (2015)
  • The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019)

Named "London, England" Syndrome.

Tropes related to Bryson's works:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the film adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson is protrayed by Robert Redford, who — by Bryson's own admission — looked better pushing 80 at the time of filming than Bryson did in his mid-40s when he walked the Appalachian Trail. Also, in the book, Mary Ellen is described as being quite large in stature whereas the film version is portrayed by a slim Kristen Schaal.
  • Ad Hominem: In One Summer: America 1927, Bryson slips into the "Poisoning the Well" variant during the discussion of the guilt or innocence of Massachussetts armed robbers and alleged murderers 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.
  • Age Lift: In the book A Walk In The Woods, Bryson and his walking companion (the pseudonymous "Stephen Katz") are 44 years old, but the film makes them a generation older and played by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, to allow for the fact that forty-something Hollywood actors wouldn't look like people too old and fat to have much chance of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: Discussed in Thunderbolt Kid when Des Moines had an infestation of cicada killers, which — since they only appeared once every 17 years — hardly anyone knew anything about, including whether they were killers of cicadas or cicadas that killed, though "the consensus pointed to the latter".note 
  • 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.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: Unfortunately, The Mother Tongue perpetuates several Urban Legends about language, notably the infamous and thoroughly disproved "Eskimos have so many words for snow" story. Reviews from linguists on Amazon are less than complimentary.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Ugly architecture generally and the removal of the UK's red phone boxes particularly.
    • Small movie theaters.
    • And the destruction of privet hedges.
    • And overcharging for stuff.
    • 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".
  • Calvinball: He has mentioned 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. Ironically, he himself understands cricket perfectly well. 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 still doesn't appear to get how much about the game (i.e. pretty much everything) you'd have to explain to the average European.
  • 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 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.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Describing the punishment for some of the people who were shipped off to Australia. Better than being hanged for impersonating an Egyptian sure, but still. 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.
    • In another place he discusses the cliché 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 tearjerker 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.”
  • Down on the Farm: Des Moines and Iowa in general. Living as far away from any coast as it's possible to get in the USA was a big spur to his wanting to see the world.
  • 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 '80s: Writing The Lost Continent, Bryson is startled to see how much America had changed since The '60s. 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 Sounds Sexier in French: In Neither Here Nor There, sex toys in Italian sound delicious, like something you'd order off a menu, while the same toys in German sound like orders barked out by a concentration camp guard. On the other hand, listening to almost any foreign television in a language you don't understand means Bryson can invent a smutty soundtrack for it, if he's feeling bored.
  • 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.
    • Early in A Walk In The Woods he goes through an entire laundry list of ways hiking in the great outdoors can kill you, from bear attacks to hantaviruses.
    • A Short History Of (Nearly) Everything goes one better, making it clear how fantastically improbable it is you even exist, let alone have survived as long as you already have.
    • In Notes From a Small Island, Bryson expands on the same subject: "The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy. First, you were born. That in itself is a remarkable achievement... 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... just existing is really a wondrous thing. 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."
  • The '50s: Features strongly in The Life And Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which describes Bryson's childhood years in the decade, and the America of those days which provided its context.
  • 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."
    • Bryson himself has stated in one of his books that he understands cricket quite well. It's logical, he has lived in various parts of England for most of the last half-century, and notably in the cricket-crazy county of Yorkshire during the '80s and '90s.
    • Subverted by his father's writing quoted in Thunderbolt Kid.
  • Hash House Lingo: Mentioned in Neither Here Nor There, when Bryson recalls his hometown's local greasy-spoon diner, where "two loose stools and a dead dog's schlong" apparently meant a pork tenderloin with onion rings.
  • 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."
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: He discusses the dangers of hypothermia to Appalachian Trail hikers in A Walk In The Woods, and the 'Paradoxical Undressing' phenomenon, wherein they remove all their clothes. He also recounts a day when he went off hiking and forget to pack his waterproofs. He gets soaked by the incessant drizzle and starts to lose track of time... it turns out that his watch had stopped.
  • Jar Potty: In The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid, Bill recounts how his mother had him use the "toity jar" whenever he needed to pee as the family were preparing to leave the house. This was all very well until he realised that she was washing out former toity jars to use as food containers, at which point his father put a very firm stop to it.
  • The Load: Katz, in the early stages of the trek on the Appalachian Trail, is very out of shape and frequently lags behind Bryson, forcing Bryson to stop and wait or even double back to check if Katz is alright. Not helping matters is that Katz has a tantrum near the beginning and throws many of their supplies, including food and coffee filters, off a cliff.
  • 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."
  • Market-Based Title: A couple of major instances in his canon, plus one minor tweak.
    • Notes From A Small Island was Bryson's story of his "valedictory tour" around Britain before returning to his native America after 20 years away. It was such a huge success, his subsequent collection of columns for one of the British Newspapers about the strangeness of life back in the US was published globally under the thematically-consistent title Notes From A Big Country. In the USA, the former was less known (it was Bryson's A Walk In The Woods, published between these two, that became his best-known book there) and so the 'sequel' title was less relevant. Instead, ...Big Country was published in the US as the self-explanatory I'm A Stranger Here Myself.
    • Bryson's story of his travels in Australia was published globally as the equally self-explanatory Down Under — except, rather mystifyingly, in North America where it instead received the title In A Sunburned Country; for what it's worth, it's a reference to a relatively famous poem by Australian Dorothea Mackellar.
    • The Mother Tongue loses its definite article in British editions, where it is simply Mother Tongue, subtitled with variations along the lines of The Story of the English Language.
  • Mountain Man: The author's desire to be a bit like one drives the Appalachian Trail trek.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be: The 1950s in America; the 1970s in Europe.
  • Older Than They Look: The author, albeit mitigated considerably by a bushy beard in recent years.
  • 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... and equally if not more importantly, what would their children do?
  • Outgrowing the Childish Name:In his semi-autobiographical book The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, he talks about himself and his parents in the third person:
    They named him William, after his father. They would call him Billy until he was old enough to ask them not to.
  • Perspective Flip: In an interview for USA Today, Stephen Katz (Real name: Matt Angerer) gave his side of several experiences Bryson wrote about, including the trip to Europe in the 70s and the events of A Walk in the Woods. Apparently Angerer just got used to walking the Appalachian Trail when Bryson called it off, and he went home while Bryson walked on successive trails in middle Appalachia. Then Bryson called Angerer to come walking on the final stretch together, which required that he get used to walking in the forest all over again. He also was not as womanising as the book claimed he was. They went to Cuba together after the book sold well.
  • 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.
  • Purple Prose: Quoting Manning Clark's in Sunburned Country.
  • 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.
  • Roadside Wave: He suffers one of these while touring Britain in Notes From a Small Island.
  • Separated by a Common Language: In The Mother Tongue Bryson brings up how in the 1970s Robert Burchfield claimed that eventually American and British English would eventually become different languages. In 1990, when Mother Tongue was written, no one could have predicted the rise of broadband internet allowing us to so much more effortlessly talk to each other, play games together, read each other's writing, and watch each other's movies — it makes for a very interesting look back.
    "The complexities of the English Language are such that even native speakers cannot always communicate effectively, as almost every American learns on his first day in Britain. Indeed, Robert Burchfield, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, created a stir in linguistic circles on both sides of the Atlantic when he announced his belief that American English and English English are drifting apart so rapidly that within 200 years the two nations won't be able to understand each other at all."
  • Shaped Like Itself: In Down Under/Sunburned Country, Bryson briefly discusses bogong moths (which formed a part of the traditional Indigenous diet, due to their high fat content). A local warden confirms that he once tried one — only once — and when asked, says it tasted "like a moth."
    I grinned. "I read that it has a kind of buttery taste."
    He thought about that. "No. It has a moth taste."
  • 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.
    • Bryson himself experiences at least one when coming back to his hotel after overdoing the beer a bit.
  • Take That!: Frequent, and not at all subtle. See the page quote above. His passionate views on British land and historical conservation have attracted some return fire, one of the more prominent examples coming from James May on an episode of Top Gear.
  • Tar and Feathers: Writes in At Home of an unfortunate customs agent who was twice tarred and feathered during the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
  • There Should Be a Law: In Notes from a Big Country, on the subject of the drug laws in the US, he recalls Newt Gingrich calling for the death penalty for drug users... and then jokingly wonders if there should be a law against being Newt Gingrich.
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: Mary Ellen, from A Walk in the Woods, is a Know-Nothing Know-It-All who comes across Bryson and Katz during the early portion of their trek on the Appalachian Trail. She talks incessantly, annoys them to no end, and won't leave their sides for several days. Finally, Bryson and Katz make a pact to ditch her at the first opportunity and do so by hitchhiking to a nearby town on a day she falls behind.
  • Twisting the Words: Bryson rather unfairly does this to George Orwell in Notes from a Small Island, noting how terrified Orwell recalled being as a boy finding himself in the company of a group of working men and fearing he would be expected to drink from a bottle they were sharing, and citing this as evidence that the famously socialist writer actually despised the working classes. In fact, Orwell specifically cited this incident as an example of the classist bigotry he had been raised with, and which as an adult he had come to understand was wrong.
  • 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.
  • Wingdinglish: He's written that Esperanto text "looks basically like a cross between Spanish and Martian."