I went back to school a few years ago and got my masters degree in journalism from the UW-Madison.  I graduated with an emphasis in science writing and burning desire to write about environmental topics.

Bill Bryson is my hero!

I was  not surprised when Bryson,’s A Walk in the Woods was assigned reading in a creative non-fiction writing seminar I took in 2008.  My professor, Deb Blum, is a Pulitzer Prize winning author herself, and she called Bryson a master of incorporating hard science into some very congenial reading.

Bryson has aimed his all-encompassing curiosity, humorous touch and his awe-inspiring ability to put complex topics into very accessible form on many topics.  Wikipedia breaks him down into travel, language, science, biography, history and memoir.

Here are four of his many books that I think everyone should read.

Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, 1998 – you step away from this work with a wistful smile on your face from the misadventures of two unlikely hikers who have tackled the 2,100 miles of the expansive and fragile Appalachian Trail together.  While we follow the pair of non-campers as they stagger under their burden of random supplies day after day and week after week and mile after mile, the terrain and history and possibilities and perils of the eastern forests comes into sharper and sharper focus.  Bryson manages to make their slog humorous and poignant, and at the same time fills your head with an amazing amount of information about the national parks, and environmental issues that transcend them.  This is what I love about reading Bill Bryson.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003  This is an amazing compendium of not only what we know about our place in the universe but how we know it.  Bryson likes to paint a picture of the scientist and their circumstances, which makes topics from particle physics to paleontology come alive.  But what really puts this book on the map for me is his final chapter, titled “Good-bye.”  It’s about what humans have done to other species.  He begins with the last of the dodos, “the famously flightless bird whose dim but trusting nature and lack of leggy zip made it a rather irresistible target for bored young tars on shore leave.  Millions of years of peaceful isolation had not prepared it for the erratic and deeply unnerving behavior of human beings.”  He ends with a reminder of how lucky we humans are to be here and how precarious our hold really is.

Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: a Memoir, 2006

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951, and his perspective on the evolution of the largest generation in American history, we boomers, using the perspective of his own simultaneously normal and quirky family (aren’t they all?) really puts what has happened tour economy, society and environment in the last 70 years into a clear perspective.

According to Gallup polls, 1957 was the happiest year in American history.  It’s been downhill from there.  And yet these were people who owned a lot less stuff than we do now and lived much less “comfortable” lives.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010 looks at how our current conditions of wealth and comfort have come to be.  Louis Bayard called the book, “a pip and a spree and, almost incidentally, a serious education,” in a Washington Post review.

What we take for granted as our right to this kind of life has not existed for very long.  It’s only been a few hundred years in which a portion of the humans on this planet can feel assured that we will have enough to eat, plenty of clean water, medical care when we need it and a boggling array of entertainments.

Bryson is a true environmentalist, but he is not a doomsayer.  You will finish any of these books with a better sense of who you are and how you got here.  It’s not inevitable.  We’ve all been very, very lucky.


2 replies

  1. Hey, Janet
    thanks for commenting. Bryson is worth the time. He has a way of infusing his abounding curiosity about the world into what ever he writes. He doesn’t sugar coat grim facts, but his wry perspective makes some of them a little easier to ingest.

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