There is something wrong with Bill Bryson

This piece was published on the of Bill Bryson´s book At Home

I am a big fan of Bill Bryson´s many bestselling books, but there is an aspect of his personality that really disturbs me. Let me first say, however, that I greatly admire his enormous knowledge on almost every subject, his extremely entertaining writing style, and his ability to make any subject interesting for the general reader. I have read about ten of his books. His book on the universe (A Short History of Nearly Everything) and his book on Shakespeare, are obviously very good. The books I found most interesting were At Home and One Summer: America, 1927, both of which contain lots of extremely interesting and important material that I have never come across anywhere else, and that everyone should know. So, if you have not read those two books: read them! Also, his many travel books are fun to read, and they make me want to follow in his footsteps; he finds interesting and amusing things literally everywhere.

But as I said, there is one thing that disturbs me about him. I find confirmation of this in several of his books, so it cannot be a one-off unfortunate formulation or event, it must be an integrated trait of his personality, which is not nice or admirable, but quite the contrary. Let me give a few quotes:

In his journey across America, he comes across a lady he finds somewhat annoying, and he writes: «I toyed for a moment with the idea of grabbing the woman by both ears and driving her forehead into my knee … » (Lost Continent, Black Swan 2015, p. 106). No decent man entertains thoughts like this.

Also, while traveling in America, he says the following: «Boy do I hate motor homes. Especially on crowded peninsulas like Cape Cod where they clog the streets and block the views – and all so that some guy and his dumpy wife can eat lunch and empty their bladders without stopping» (Lost Continent, p. 200).

Travelling by bus in England: «…just beyond Littlehampton, a young man with baggy pants and an insouciant slouch boarded the bus and took a seat across from me. He was wearing a baseball cap several sizes too large for his head. Only his outsized ears kept it from falling over his eyes. The bill of the cap was steamrolled flat and still had its shiny hologram-like price sticker attached. Across the brow in large capitals was the word «OBEY». Earphones was sending booming sound waves through the magnificent interstellar void of his cranium on a journey to find the distant, arid mote that was his brain. It must have been a little like the hunt for the Higgs boson» (Little Dribbling, Black Swan 2015, p. 44-45).

When ordering a sandwich in a McDonald´s restaurant, and the polite young man serving him asks «do you want fries with that?», Bryson becomes almost angry and does not say the polite «No thank you», he says: «No. That´s why I didn´t ask for fries, you see … When I want fries, generally I say something like «I would like some fries, too, please»». When the young man says that they are told to ask every customer questions like this, Bryson replies: «Do you need to know the other things I don´t want? It´s quite a long list. In fact, everything you serve except for the two things I asked for». (Little Dribbling, p. 41). Bryson is so proud of his behavior here that he tells us about an almost identical incident in one of his other books.

When Bryson enters some premises that many years ago contained a food hall which is no longer there, and a young man explains this to him, Bryson writes: «… I didn´t like this young man because he had a vaguely insolent air. Also, he had a lot of gel in his hair … «Never been [a food hall] here» [the young man] responded blandly. «There´s no food hall in any of our stores». «Well, pardon me for saying so, but you´re an idiot» I said matter of factly.» The young man explains that the store Bryson was looking for was next door. Bryson then finishes the conversation with the following: «I was quiet for about fifteen seconds. «Well, you´re still an idiot» I said quietly and turned on my heel …» (Little Dribbling, p. 83-84).

After a woman lets her dog poo on a footpath and she does not remove the droppings even if Bryson clearly wants her to do that, Bryson explains what happened: «I stared at her for a long moment, with something like awe, then raised my walking stick high into the air and calmly beat her to death. When she was quite still, I rolled her ample, Barbour-clad body off the path and into the marshy reeds where it sank with a satisfying glug. Then I checked my map and resumed my walk, wondering if there was any place … where I could get a cup of tea … » (Little Dribbling, p. 256). (This event is probably fictionalized).

About a hero in a TV-series he doesn´t like, he says the following: «I saw [him] only once more that twenty years ago, I have never lost the desire to work the fellow over with a baseball bat studded with nails» (Small Island, Black Swan 2015, p. 25).

Bryson is a very good writer, he observes things most people do not notice, he has an enormous store of knowledge, and his readers obtain a lot of interesting facts that must be difficult to get anywhere else. His travel book have made me want to follow in his footsteps, he has described so many places in such a fascinating and interesting way that I get a strong desire to visit them. But I would not like to travel with him. I do not think that violence (or a threat of it or of fantasizing about it) is fun. I also think that people should be treated with and described in a respectful manner, except when it is obvious that they do not deserve respect. Some of the people Bryson meet, do, as far as I can see from his description, not deserve respect, but I think the quotes I have given above show that Bryson too often is disrespectful towards people who does not deserve to be treated or described the way he describes them.

As far as I can see from his books, Bryson is not a nice man. His personality does not match the picture of him in his book, a picture which presents him as everybody´s favorite grandpa. He is an important, knowledgeable, educated man with a string of academic awards and honorary titles to his name, and it is strange that an intelligent man can be so mean and disrespectful towards people as he is. It is nice to be important, I guess. But I think it is much more important to be nice.


Bill Bryson on Wikipedia:



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