To try and describe Bill Bryson’s writing in anything less than his own breezily humorous manner would be to do him a disservice, and yet for us normal mortals to aspire to write the way he does would be quite impossible. There’s a reason his books are bestsellers, after all.
Despite all his major writing being in the form of travelogues, he’s acquired quite a cult following amongst even those for whom fiction is the order of the day (such as yours truly). With his journalist background (both parents were journalists and he worked as one for a long time) he manages to combine (in)action with facts in such a way that you don’t realise or really mind even that mixed in with your exciting story is a great deal of research and learning. The books are infused with personality, not a stylised, idealised version of some abstraction masquerading as a person, but someone who tramps alongside through magnificent vistas in sunny European villages and dead-end Australian shantytowns making the whole thing quite an experience. Drawing heavily on his own cultural background and life – a country boy from Iowa who decamped to Europe early on and only shifted back around his fifties, his books are vicariously happy, not brimful of perfectly cheery joy, but surprisingly relatable even when you have nothing that you can see in common with the life he’s lead.
His books range from a compilation of his columns about Ye Grande Old American Way of Life written as a long term Briton (Notes from a Big Country) to his experiences hiking the Appalachian trail in the United States (A Walk in the Woods) to his African Diary, a work written for charity – to the standard backpacking-across-Europe-as-a-penniless-college-student (Neither Here Nor There) as well as an as-always entertaining autobiography that also simultaneously manages to be a classic chronicle of small-town American life in the Fifties (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid). My personal favourite? Down Under, a book about discovering the mythic landmass of the southern hemisphere, Australia. Although it admittedly doesn’t sound like the most promising setting for a laugh-out-loud comedy riot, it very unexpectedly is, from the unbelievably odd description of that ever-beloved game of cricket to his entirely unpromising efforts at surfing. His ability to constantly stumble ineptly through life and across all the interesting bits of history can somehow make you cackle with laughter while quickly switching gear to the most solemn reflection – that just as quickly shifts again to comedy once he’s decided that world can only survive so long without a dose of irony.
A shift into different focuses is something you can see with his tremendously popular A Short History of Nearly Everything. Although drier than most of his other efforts, it’s a huge step in the direction of demystifying the more arcane tangles of science like a truly fabulous teacher would, leaving all the interesting bits in about drama-queen scientists and bitterest rivalries, creating a sort of scientific soap opera while simultaneously somehow not dumbing it down too completely.
And therein, really, lies his magic.