Books by Bryson, Bill

Bryson, Bill. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. London: Black Swan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-552-77254-9.
What could be better than growing up in the United States in the 1950s? Well, perhaps being a kid with super powers as the American dream reached its apogee and before the madness started! In this book, humorist, travel writer, and science populariser extraordinaire Bill Bryson provides a memoir of his childhood (and, to a lesser extent, coming of age) in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and '60s. It is a thoroughly engaging and charming narrative which, if you were a kid there, then will bring back a flood of fond memories (as well as some acutely painful ones) and if you weren't, to appreciate, as the author closes the book, “What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid.”

The 1950s were the golden age of comic books, and whilst shopping at the local supermarket, Bryson's mother would drop him in the (unsupervised) Kiddie Corral where he and other offspring could indulge for free to their heart's content. It's only natural a red-blooded Iowan boy would discover himself to be a superhero, The Thunderbolt Kid, endowed with ThunderVision, which enabled his withering gaze to vapourise morons. Regrettably, the power seemed to lack permanence, and the morons so dispersed into particles of the luminiferous æther had a tedious way of reassembling themselves and further vexing our hero and his long-suffering schoolmates. But still, more work for The Thunderbolt Kid!

This was a magic time in the United States—when prosperity not only returned after depression and war, but exploded to such an extent that mean family income more than doubled in the 1950s while most women still remained at home raising their families. What had been considered luxuries just a few years before: refrigerators and freezers, cars and even second cars, single family homes, air conditioning, television, all became commonplace (although kids would still gather in the yard of the neighbourhood plutocrat to squint through his window at the wonder of colour TV and chuckle at why he paid so much for it).

Although the transformation of the U.S. from an agrarian society to a predominantly urban and industrial nation was well underway, most families were no more than one generation removed from the land, and Bryson recounts his visits to his grandparents' farm which recall what was lost and gained as that pillar of American society went into eclipse.

There are relatively few factual errors, but from time to time Bryson's narrative swallows counterfactual left-wing conventional wisdom about the Fifties. For example, writing about atomic bomb testing:

Altogether between 1946 and 1962, the United States detonated just over a thousand nuclear warheads, including some three hundred in the open air, hurling numberless tons of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. The USSR, China, Britain, and France detonated scores more.

Sigh…where do we start? Well, the obvious subtext is that U.S. started the arms race and that other nuclear powers responded in a feeble manner. In fact, the U.S. conducted a total of 1030 nuclear tests, with a total of 215 detonated in the atmosphere, including all tests up until testing was suspended in 1992, with the balance conducted underground with no release of radioactivity. The Soviet Union (USSR) did, indeed, conduct “scores” of tests, to be precise 35.75 score with a total of 715 tests, with 219 in the atmosphere—more than the U.S.—including Tsar Bomba, with a yield of 50 megatons. “Scores” indeed—surely the arms race was entirely at the instigation of the U.S.

If you've grown up in he U.S. in the 1950s or wished you did, you'll want to read this book. I had totally forgotten the radioactive toilets you had to pay to use but kids could wiggle under the door to bask in their actinic glare, the glories of automobiles you could understand piece by piece and were your ticket to exploring a broad continent where every town, every city was completely different: not just another configuration of the same franchises and strip malls (and yet recall how exciting it was when they first arrived: “We're finally part of the great national adventure!”)

The 1950s, when privation gave way to prosperity, yet Leviathan had not yet supplanted family, community, and civil society, it was utopia to be a kid (although, having been there, then, I'd have deemed it boring, but if I'd been confined inside as present-day embryonic taxpayers in safetyland are I'd have probably blown things up. Oh wait—Willoughby already did that, twelve hours too early!). If you grew up in the '50s, enjoy spending a few pleasant hours back there; if you're a parent of the baby boomers, exult in the childhood and opportunities you entrusted to them. And if you're a parent of a child in this constrained century? Seek to give your child the unbounded opportunities and unsupervised freedom to explore the world which Bryson and this humble scribbler experienced as we grew up.

Vapourising morons with ThunderVision—we need you more than ever, Thunderbolt Kid!

A U.S. edition is available.

January 2010 Permalink

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare. London: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-719790-3.
This small, thin (200 page) book contains just about every fact known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare, which isn't very much. In fact, if the book restricted itself only to those facts, and excluded descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Shakespeare's contemporaries, actors and theatres of the time, and the many speculations about Shakespeare and the deliciously eccentric characters who sometimes promoted them, it would probably be a quarter of its present length.

For a figure whose preeminence in English literature is rarely questioned today, and whose work shaped the English language itself—2035 English words appear for the first time in the works of Shakespeare, of which about 800 continue in common use today, including critical, frugal, horrid, vast, excellent, lonely, leapfrog, and zany (pp. 112–113)—very little is known apart from the content of his surviving work. We know the dates of his birth, marriage, and death, something of his parents, siblings, wife, and children, but nothing of his early life, education, travel, reading, or any of the other potential sources of the extraordinary knowledge and insight into the human psyche which informs his work. Between the years 1585 and 1592 he drops entirely from sight: no confirmed historical record has been found, then suddenly he pops up in London, at the peak of his powers, writing, producing, and performing in plays and quickly gaining recognition as one of the preeminent dramatists of his time. We don't even know (although there is no shortage of speculation) which plays were his early works and which were later: there is no documentary evidence for the dates of the plays nor the order in which they were written, apart from a few contemporary references which allow placing a play as no later than the mention of it. We don't even know how he spelt or pronounced his name: of six extant signatures believed to be in his hand, no two spell his name the same way, and none uses the “Shakespeare” spelling in use today.

Shakespeare's plays brought him fame and a substantial fortune during his life, but plays were regarded as ephemeral things at the time, and were the property of the theatrical company which commissioned them, not the author, so no authoritative editions of the plays were published during his life. Had it not been for the efforts of his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, who published the “First Folio” edition of his collected works seven years after his death, it is probable that the eighteen plays which first appeared in print in that edition would have been lost to history, with subsequent generations deeming Shakespeare, based upon surviving quarto editions of uneven (and sometimes laughable) quality of a few plays, one of a number of Elizabethan playwrights but not the towering singular figure he is now considered to be. (One wonders if there were others of Shakespeare's stature who were not as lucky in the dedication of their friends, of whose work we shall never know.) Nobody really knows how many copies of the First Folio were printed, but guesses run between 750 and 1000. Around 300 copies in various states of completeness have survived to the present, and around eighty copies are in a single room at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., about two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Now maybe decades of computer disasters have made me obsessively preoccupied with backup and geographical redundancy, but that just makes me shudder. Is there anybody there who wonders whether this is really a good idea? After all, the last time I was a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I spotted an ACME MISSILE BOMB right in plain sight!

A final chapter is devoted to theories that someone other than the scantily documented William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. The author points out the historical inconsistencies and implausibilities of most frequently proffered claimants, and has a good deal of fun with some of the odder of the theorists, including the exquisitely named J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman, and George M. Battey.

Bill Bryson fans who have come to cherish his lighthearted tone and quirky digressions on curious details and personalities from such works as A Short History of Nearly Everything (November 2007) will not be disappointed. If one leaves the book not knowing a great deal about Shakespeare, because so little is actually known, it is with a rich sense of having been immersed in the England of his time and the golden age of theatre to which he so mightily contributed.

A U.S. edition is available, but at this writing only in hardcover.

July 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything (Audiobook, Unabridged). Westminster, MD: Books on Tape, 2003. ISBN 0-7366-9320-3.
What an astonishing achievement! Toward the end of the 1990s, Bill Bryson, a successful humorist and travel writer, found himself on a flight across the Pacific and, looking down on the ocean, suddenly realised that he didn't know how it came to be, how it affected the clouds above it, what lived in its depths, or hardly anything else about the world and universe he inhabited, despite having lived in an epoch in which science made unprecedented progress in understanding these and many other things. Shortly thereafter, he embarked upon a three year quest of reading popular science books and histories of science, meeting with their authors and with scientists in numerous fields all around the globe, and trying to sort it all out into a coherent whole.

The result is this stunning book, which neatly packages the essentials of human knowledge about the workings of the universe, along with how we came to know all of these things and the stories of the often fascinating characters who figured it all out, into one lucid, engaging, and frequently funny package. Unlike many popular works, Bryson takes pains to identify what we don't know, of which there is a great deal, not just in glamourous fields like particle physics but in stuffy endeavours such as plant taxonomy. People who find themselves in Bryson's position at the outset—entirely ignorant of science—can, by reading this single work, end up knowing more about more things than even most working scientists who specialise in one narrow field. The scope is encyclopedic: from quantum mechanics and particles to galaxies and cosmology, with chemistry, the origin of life, molecular biology, evolution, genetics, cell biology, paleontology and paleoanthropology, geology, meteorology, and much, much more, all delightfully told, with only rare errors, and with each put into historical context. I like to think of myself as reasonably well informed about science, but as I listened to this audiobook over a period of several weeks on my daily walks, I found that every day, in the 45 to 60 minutes I listened, there was at least one and often several fascinating things of which I was completely unaware.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 17 hours and 48 minutes. The book is read by British narrator Richard Matthews, who imparts an animated and light tone appropriate to the text. He does, however mispronounce the names of several scientists, for example physicists Robert Dicke (whose last name he pronounces “Dick”, as opposed to the correct “Dickey”) and Richard Feynman (“Fane-man” instead of “Fine-man”), and when he attempts to pronounce French names or phrases, his accent is fully as affreux as my own, but these are minor quibbles which hardly detract from an overall magnificent job. If you'd prefer to read the book, it's available in paperback now, and there's an illustrated edition, which I haven't seen. I would probably never have considered this book, figuring I already knew it all, had I not read Hugh Hewitt's encomium to it and excerpts therefrom he included (parts 1, 2, 3).

November 2007 Permalink