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CARPE LIBRUM: Explorations with Bill Bryson

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Book reviews from the bi-weekly Carpe Librum column.

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Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s new weekly book column. Each week I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum, but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many North Carolina writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world as well. 


little-dribbling-brysonA Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
Broadway Books 1998, 274 pages
The Road to Little Dribbling
by Bill Bryson
Doubleday 2015, 380 pages

Billy Bryson—the travel writer who famously explained he came from Des Moines, Iowa, because someone had to—has released his 21st book (again, presumably, because someone had to). “The Road to Little Dribbling” somewhat follows his journey from one end of Britain to another on the occasion of him becoming a British citizen. Last year his 1998 book “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” was made into a film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, so it was a fortuitous moment for Bryson to release a new book.

I love “A Walk In The Woods.” I have been reading it for about five years. I keep it in my car, and when I finish it , I just start again. To my mind, it presents the pinnacle of travel writing. A specific narrative captivates and provides a structure (the walking of the Appalachian Trail) to incorporate the history, science and factual information the work demands. The characters’ personal struggles are palpable and entertaining. It is edutainment at its best.

When I read “A Walk in the Woods” I can see Bryson setting up his tent for the first time in his basement and obsessively researching statistics of bear attacks. The frigid air of mountain winters that last a little too long and then the lush beauty of landscape emerging around them all are palpable. I love the ridiculous people Bryson and his companion Stephen Katz meet and the unfathomable situations they find themselves in.

Though most of his books are entertaining, sometimes he succeeds more than others. When Jock asked me what I thought of “The Road to Little Dribbling,” I heard myself respond, “It’s a Bill Bryson book. He manages to cram a lot of information in without actually saying anything.”

“The Road to Little Dribbling” is entertaining, but Bryson’s trademark cheekiness is starting to slide into a certain amount of “Hey, kids! Get off my lawn!” (metaphorically speaking). He dedicates a significant portion to just how awful TripAdvisor is. I agree with him entirely, by the way, but I was taken aback by just the vehemence of his ongoing dislike.

In theory this book is the followup to “Notes from a Small Island,” his earlier travel memoir of Britain. Now, after many years living in the UK, Bryson has decided to apply for citizenship. In true Bryson fashion, he is deeply affronted by the reality the test requires of him to know things about Britain—things blatantly untrue. He is beside himself when asked what the two most distant points of the British mainland are; Britain wants “answers” like Land’s End and John o’Groats. They are not the two most distant points, by the way. According to the author, they are Cape Wrath in Scotland to Bognor Regis on the English Channel. He has dubbed this “The Bryson Line” and decided to celebrate his citizenship by traveling it.

It is not quite as specific a narrative as the Appalachian Trial presents. Part of it is because the idea of hiking, or attempting to hike, the Appalachian Trail continues to appeal to many people. No one really thought of driving “The Bryson Line” in England before this book. But the Appalachian Trail is the great communal trek through the American wilderness. It’s a tangible idea one could tackle alone or with a couple of equally inspired/insane friends.

Though Bryson manages to fill “The Road to Little Dribbling” with a remarkable amount of information about England, its conservation movement, people’s history, architecture, tourism industry and food, it’s not quite as cohesive as “A Walk in the Woods.” But I did laugh out loud and read many pages to Jock. By the end, I felt like I spent an afternoon having lunch and a chat with Bryson about an assortment of things. But it didn’t really enlighten my view on the world—which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I truly looked forward to every moment I got to spend with the book.

I especially loved the interlude about discovering how one of his friends conducted “The Lost Interview” with John Lennon and how Bryson’s wife frequently saw Ringo Starr at their neighborhood Ironmonger grocery store. Bryson was floored to discover he actually was neighbors with Ringo and understandably shocked his wife failed to mention this earthshaking bit of news. I’m taking his side on this one.

In “The Road to Little Dribbling” I learned  a lot of small tidbits that tied together the way I think about British geography, geology and history. But there really wasn’t a story. I never doubted Bryson would manage to drive cross country (which is sort of like driving across Texas and Oklahoma). In “A Walk in the Woods,” the reader begins to wonder if they are going to make it out alive—or complete the trail.

Nevertheless, Bryson’s wit and charm are apparent in “The Road to Little Dribbling,” but to find true inspiration, pick up his masterpiece, “A Walk in the Woods.”

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