The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

This book has been reprinted over and over again. First published in 1989, Bryson went on one of his characteristic ‘walk-abouts’ in small town America, except that he drove countless thousands of miles in his mother’s old Chevy, re-visiting old haunts, calling on old friends and, generally………doing little more than vent his spleen, disgorge invective, and rehearse the full length and breadth of his ‘grumpy old man’s’ adjectival resource base (though he’s only 36 years old at the time of writing), to give us a view of Lost Continentthe American hinterland that leaves begging the question: how could this nation really be the number one economy in the world if the country is populated by so many obese, drunk, stupid people who live in imaginary places like ‘Urinal’, ‘Dunceville’ or ‘Dog Water’? I leave the question begging……………

I have no axe to grind, no reason to defend Bryson or vilify him for his jaundiced view of his homeland, but I know that he is definitely not seen as a ‘national treasure’ by many Americans, and if they had such a thing as a Queen’s Birthday Honours list, he would certainly not feature for his services promoting America abroad. That said, he still has a huge fan-base for the style of his writing and the humour he brings to his observations.

I am a fan of Bryson, but I grew  a little weary as I ploughed my way through this volume. Maybe I’ve read too many of his books. The Lost Continent suffers from the predictable repetition you find in a lot of averagely written travel memoirs, and in my case, I see a lot of it in the world of adventure cycling. For a man who drives nearly 14,000 miles (in an old Chevy), averaging some 200 miles a day, his observations are principally through the windscreen of his car and the paltry hours he spends actually visiting places. And because he rarely has the chance to dig beneath the surface, meet the people that he chances by, or discover what makes small town America really tick, his writing frequently descends to a mere catalogue of superficial impressions and activities that occupy any traveller: food eaten, motels stayed in, weather, music on his car radio, how bored he was driving over vast expanses of flat prairie land…………and so on.

Having said all of that, I was compelled to continue reading to the end…….testimony, perhaps, to the skill of this renowned word-merchant.

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About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on July 5, 2013, in Book reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Bryson wrote fairly positively about Australia, which commends him well to people quick to take offence (I seem to remember he didn’t like Darwin – I haven’t been there but I doubt his observations would worry them). Generally I enjoy his quirky observations. Yesterday while walking past the bedrooms of the homeless in a transport tunnel in Sydney I noted that one bibliophile’s pile of books contained a couple of Bryson titles. And today you’ve written about him. Time I read another of his books!

    • Rob, I suspect Bryson is much more scathing about his own country. It’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. After his ‘walk-abouts’ in other countries, he is much more content to highlight fascinating facts and figures (eg the number of poisonous snakes in Australia) and celebrate any evidence of quirkiness.

  2. Let me just say that this American loves Bill Bryson and has consumed every one of his books, including some not dedicated to travel (I highly recommend Made In America for anyone wondering why the Yankees don’t speak like the Brits). Having said that, I agree that Lost Continent is one of his weaker efforts. I believe the problem is simply this: Bryson thoroughly enjoys the uniqueness of each place he visits and he has absolutely no use for large corporations which remove the distinctiveness of a place. It should be no surprise then that he finds much to be desired in the world capital of commercialism, the home of Walmart and McDonalds. If you’re looking for a more entertaining read from Bryson’s adventures in America, I suggest A Walk In The Woods, about his (abortive) attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail.

    • I have to agree, Steve, that he has written much better things. I did like his Walk in the Woods, Down Under and Notes from a Small Island. But thanks for recommending Made in America.

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