Anchor, 1997 (2015 reprint) 304 pages, C$21.97 pb, ISBN 978-0385686037
In reviewing a book, it’s hard to give bigger praise than to explain why and how a book led to concrete action in the reviewer’s life. It’s commonly accepted that books that have the biggest impact lead to real changes in behaviour, to perceptible improvements in the reader’s life. But Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood has me thinking along opposite lines: What if a book’s ultimate success could be measured in carefully considered and embraced inaction?
I’m not sure Bryson himself would approve. After all, he has made his reputation as a writer by doing things and then writing about them. Best-known (if unfairly so) as a travel writer, Bryson has proven himself an uncommonly polyvalent writer, notably by delivering a compulsively readable scientific vulgarization tome A Short History of Nearly Everything that floored me when I read it a few years ago. A Walk in the Woods is closer to a classical travel book, albeit with a twist—it’s all about hiking a few thousand miles not too far away from Bryson’s home.
The Appalachian Trail, should it need to be reintroduced, it a 3,000-mile trail that goes from Georgia to Maine, crossing rivers, peaks, valleys, roads and other areas of the Eastern United States. Maintained largely by volunteers (with some assistance from the U.S. Park Service), it is attempted by thousands of people every year, even though a much smaller percentage (10–25%, depending on whom you believe) manage to walk the entire trail during the hospitable season. Bryson was 44 when we decided he’d attempt to hike as much of the trail as possible. The book is a journal of his experiences.
Newcomers to Bryson’s style will be quickly hooked by the authors’ breezy prose, equally laden with fact as it can be compulsively funny. Bryson masters the art of delivering exposition with a comedian’s touch, and so A Walk in the Woods can drop lengthy passages about the U.S. Park Service’s fondness for building roads, the environmental collapse of the American chestnut tree or Thoreau’s conflicted feelings about nature and make it feel like highly entertaining reading. It helps that, in-between the delicious exposition, we get personal anecdotes about Bryson walking the trails, nearly succumbing to hypothermia, and the perils of walking alongside a vaguely disreputable friend.
Then, of course, there’s the minutia of long-distance hiking. Completing the Appalachian Trail means not falling prey to injuries, bears, dehydration, lost bearings, occasional murders and other annoying hikers. Bryson spares few details in telling readers about setting up camp in the wilderness, spending days without washing, being terrified by night-time noises, the shock of reintegrating civilization and the bare comforts of the trail for months on end.
(Those who came to the book by way of the Robert Redford movie will be happy to find out that while much of the book’s first half is adapted reasonably well to the big screen, the second half of the book is almost completely different, and feels far more interesting than the pat third act manufactured by the screenwriters. Plus there’s a lot more of Bryson’s delightful exposition to read.)
I started reading A Walk in the Woods still clinging to the notion that hiking the Appalachian Trail, as unlikely as it would be to arrange (“Hi Boss; I’m going for a walk… I’ll be back in a few months”) would be a pretty cool thing to do. By the time I was finished reading the book, though, Bryson’s meticulous description of what it implies had put me off the project forever. Hiking still seems like a great idea; hiking for a few days still sounds pretty good to me. But the 3000 miles, six-month odyssey from Georgia to Maine? Nope, no way, I’m good.
Hence my assertion that some of the best books are those who carefully lead us to a measured lack of action. Thank you, Bill Bryson, for curing me from that unrealistic notion—I’ll sleep better knowing that I do not, in fact, want to do this. On the other hand, I will read more of Bryson’s books…