Bill Bryson is retiring. Woe is us – books
Bill Bryson retires. Bill Bryson, who led us through a lost continent (a small town in America); He took us on a journey across the country through a “little island” (Great Britain); who turned our attention to the science of almost everything and kept it there for more than 15 years.
Bryson, 68, says the closure made him read for pleasure for the first time in decades and he really enjoyed it. “I really enjoy doing nothing,” he said in a recent interview with Times Radio, London. “As long as I stay on this planet, I would like to spend it pleasing myself … [and my] masses of grandchildren. ”
Good for him, but woe to us! Who is going to compile the scientific discoveries of the 21st century in the next compact, hilarious and engaging book full of fascinating facts and origin stories?
Fortunately, it left us enough to chew for a while. He has written 21 books on travel, science and language. A Brief History of Almost Everything (2003) made him famous and earned him awards. It’s still a best-seller in airport bookstores, and somehow there’s always a copy at every second-hand book stand you find on the sidewalk.
It’s worth noting that a number of equally enlightening and enchanting titles came before and after Brief History. The Dictionary of Troublesome Words (1984) catalogs words and phrases that are used incorrectly to demonstrate a preferable and questionable use; At Home: A Brief History of Private Life (2010) was written from and about the nooks and crannies of his home, a former rectory built in 1851, in an English village.
“I come from Des Moines. Someone had to do it, ”says the first line of his first, frequently cited book, The Lost Continent: Travels in a Small American Town (1989). His parents worked for the local newspaper, the Des Moines Register, as did his brother, nine years his senior.
“It was the family business, you worked in my home newspapers,” he said in an interview with ABC Science. “So it never occurred to me to do anything other than go to the newspapers.”
He moved to England in his 20s, while backpacking through Europe. His first job was as an orderly at a sanitarium for the mentally ill in Surrey, where he met his wife Cynthia Billen, a nurse. He has four children, ten grandchildren, and has lost all trace of his Des Moines accent.
He won over his adopted country with Notes From a Small Island (1995), which in a 2003 BBC Radio poll was voted the book that best represents England.
Bryson is a brilliant writer with a cheerful disposition. He’s that slightly overweight science teacher with smiling eyes and a storehouse of knowledge that many of us didn’t have.
Apparently the only thing that angers him is the garbage.
He can be held at knife point in Johannesburg or fall on his ass on the Norwegian ice sheets and get back up with a joke on his lips. But “if you’re walking down the street and you see someone littering, kill them,” he said, when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Winchester in 2016. “But otherwise, be nice. Be compassionate. Say thanks.”
Bryson is a numbers type, but not the terrible type. Here are some of the numbers he compiled for The Body: A Guide for Occupants: The average body is made up of seven billion billion atoms; a part of his brain the size of a grain of sand “could contain two thousand terabytes of information” or enough to store 1.2 billion copies of Bryson’s book; if you put all your DNA end to end, it will extend beyond the orbit of Pluto. “Think about it,” he writes, “there are enough of you to leave the solar system.”
His books were always full of facts, unusual trivia, and easily accessible science. One of the things that inspired him to write The Body, he said, was the fact that he was born with only one kidney and didn’t realize it until he was 60.
His astonishing ability to make the mundane seem miraculous has won readers of all ages and on all continents. His books, many of which helped us travel the world, have sold more than 16 million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages. In a time of little or no travel, it is sad to think that there will never be new ones. But the travel industry will return. Maybe Bryson will too.