Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

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…

A Walk in the Woods (2015)

A Walk in the Woods (2015)

(On Cable TV, June 2017) Adapting a novel to the big screen is tough enough, but adapting a non-fiction book as a movie seems even tougher—it’s about jettisoning the informative material and building up the story, even if it means adding more to it. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood (which I read between seeing the movie and writing this capsule review) is a compulsively readable account of a forty-something man’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, occasionally alongside an old friend who’s even less in shape than he is. In doing so, Bryson gets to talk about the state of American natural preserves, the environmental collapse of some tree species, the nature of the Appalachian trail, what kind of person voluntarily hikes 3000 miles in a few months, and assorted topics that come to mind while walking a few miles every day for weeks on end. The film elides the details, although a surprising amount of top-level information still finds its way in the dramatization. As a movie, A Walk in the Woods wisely focuses on the difficult relationship between the two hikers, and the various incidents that can take place along the trail. Much of the film’s first half sticks impressively close to the book—but both diverge later on as the book itself becomes less storyable and the film feels the need to build everything to a dramatic conclusion. Robert Redford is very likable as Bryson, given his weathered features and sympathetic persona. Playing opposite him, Jeff Bridges makes for a capable foil as “Stephen Katz”, an out-of-shape screw-up who tags along for the hike. A few name actors pop up in amusing small roles (Emma Thompson as an understanding wife, Kirsten Shaal as an intolerable hiker, Nick Offerman as a hiking gear salesman) but the focus here is on Redford, Bridges and the trail itself. The dramatic climax doesn’t quite work (it feels shot in a studio, far too engineered to feel natural, and on-the-nose as to what the characters learn from it) but the rest of the film has a warm feel to it—kind of an extraordinary adventure achievable by ordinary people. Some of the scenery is spectacular enough to kindle a diffuse desire to walk the trail, but in this case please do read the book—better than vicarious adventure, it’s detailed enough to make anyone reconsider ever walking the Appalachian Trail.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Anchor Canada, 2004, 560 pages, C$23.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-385-66004-4

It’s hard to find out a book that lives up to its hype, especially when the hype is near-unanimous.  For years, I’d heard about Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in numerous book-recommendation lists, usually accompanied with superlatives about it being an exemplary work of science vulgarization, and the kind of book fit to expand minds.

So imagine my surprise in finding out that A Short History of Nearly Everything lives up to its intimidating hype.  The most surprising thing about the book’s success may be that Bill Bryson is not a trained scientist.  Nor was he, prior to the book’s publication, known as a science writer: His output until then focused on light-hearted travel books and other personal essays.  A Short History of Nearly Everything was designed to be something else: A 500-page behemoth taking on all of creation, doubling as an exploration of the state of scientific knowledge and where much of what we know about the universe comes from.  In the book’s introduction, Bryson flat-out sates that he wrote the book for himself, to self-learn what he through he’d missed in his formal education, and to patch the holes left by dull science textbooks.

He succeeds admirably well.  A Short History of Nearly Everything is supposed to start at the Big Bang and end at the dawn of human history, but the entire book is a celebration of the human drive for knowledge.  In discussing Earth’s formation, for instance, Bryson spends as much time telling us how scientists came to understand what we know about the Earth.  There are numerous anecdotes about the early days of science, and the heroic sacrifices required to find out things that we now take for granted.  Disastrous expeditions seem to be the norm for 19th century science, even (especially) when they lead to comparatively mundane innovations such as topographical map contour lines.  A Short History of Nearly Everything presents the scientist as a hero, and well-chosen portraits make it clear that even ordinary people can make extraordinary discoveries.  Little of it is dull given how the scientist-as-an-eccentric becomes a constant through much of the narrative.

Even for readers with a good general scientific background, the list of new and unexpected nuggets of information and overarching links between disparate fields to be gleaned from the book is astonishing.  Nearly every page has a fascinating snippet or two, and Bryson’s generalist instincts serve him well in drawing evocative parallels between dissimilar areas.  It helps a lot that Bryson knows how to write smooth and easy yet factually-dense prose.  He’s as insightful as he is hilarious, and the resulting blend is simply intoxicating.  A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fantastically well-written book, and the prose style is just as entertaining as the subject matter.

More than celebrating science, though, A Short History of Nearly Everything is perhaps at its most interesting when it charts the circa-2005 limits to human knowledge.  He acknowledges the limits of what we know and the ways we think we figured it out: It turns out that our understanding of fossils is based on a far small sample than you may expect, and that several areas of human knowledge remain curiously under-explored.  Rather than cast doubt on science itself, those gaps and paper-thin inferences only serve to inspire: There is still a lot of science left to be done, and the way we’ve been able to learn so much from so little, is nothing short of awe-inspiring at our own human cleverness.

Nearly ten years after the book’s writing, and at a time when it seems that nearly every scientific popularization is riddled with errors and simplification, you may expect A Short History of Nearly Everything to be similarly undermined by a long list of errors.  But a look through reviews and commentary about the book merely reveals a distressingly short list of errors for such a big book and general praise from knowledgeable audiences.  (Although I’ve been able to find a few strongly dissenting voices, most of those are in the form of forum posting, not well-argued reviews.  Leave any in the comments, please..)

Frankly, A Short History of Nearly Everything is such an exceptionally good book that the worst thing I can say about it is that I’m already mad at having forgotten a substantial chunk of it.  Get the book, read it and be amazed, not only at the prose, but what it tells us about ourselves.  Then don’t be surprised to find yourself praising its merits to others.