Benjamin Duffy's Reviews > The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
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Oct 25, 11

bookshelves: humor, non-fiction
Read from October 19 to 25, 2011

As an experiment, if you ever decide you might like to read this book, first pick it up and simply read the opening sentence of each chapter. If I had done so, I probably wouldn't have bothered with the rest, and I would have been just as well off.

The Lost Continent and I got off on the wrong foot. I knew something was amiss when the first chapter consisted of nothing more than Bill Bryson taking an enormous steaming dump on his home state of Iowa. Not a cutesy, ironic dump; nor even a sardonic-yet-affectionate dump; but a real, live, mean-spirited, rhetorical bowel movement. Here, I'll sum up the entire first chapter for you, in my own words: Iowa is boring and all the people there are fat and slow-witted. Plopbbt. (And that's Iowa, the state where his parents lived. Wait until you see what he does to Mississippi and New Mexico. Or, better yet, don't.)

This was all very unpleasantly surprising, partly because of the way I've approached Bryson's written catalog in reverse chronological order. Having read A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Made in America, and At Home: A Short History of Private Life, I had formed a mental picture of Bryson as a fifty-something professorial type: rambling, erudite, a bit geeky, smart-assed but in a wry, self-effacing manner, with a fierce populist streak.

With that expectation in mind, The Lost Continent was a shock, as it is the work of a thirty-something Bryson, snarky and evidently angry. And I generally like snark and anger: Anthony Bourdain is one of my favorite writers. But where Bourdain leavens his writing with humor and occasional tenderness, The Lost Continent is just relentlessly negative, never passing up the opportunity to take a cheap shot.

Ironically for a book titled "travels in small-town America," Bryson appears to hate 90% of the small towns he visits on his road trip, speaking disapprovingly of their poverty, their inhabitants' provincial ways and funny-sounding accents, yet he waxes ecstatic over such non-small places as Savannah, Charleston, and Times Square (!). I actually agreed with quite a few of his sentiments; e.g., how tacky, inauthentic, and Disneyland-like some of our national historic sites have become, but his voice makes even those shared sentiments hard to swallow.

The last quarter of the book is the best part, as it slowly becomes apparent that this book is an elegy to his recently-deceased father, and perhaps a regret for having spent his adulthood in England rather than America, but it was honestly too little, too late for me. Maybe I would have enjoyed this book more if I'd read it when it was new, or at least before I read so much of his later, better work, but as it is, I couldn't really recommend this book to anyone, either as a first Bryson or a tenth.
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Reading Progress

10/19/2011 page 28
9.0%
10/19/2011 page 65
21.0% "Wow, this is shockingly awful so far. Just in the first 60-some pages, I've had to power through irritation several times in order to keep reading. There better be some sort of payoff later."
10/24/2011 page 294
94.0% "Utah! Cedar City! St. George! Kanab!"
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Jamie (new)

Jamie The only Bryson I've read was Notes from a Small Island. I was surprised to find that the author was so irritable. He was consistently annoyed, rather than charmed, by the eccentric people he met, and he was often quite rude.

I've read part of At Home, and he doesn't seem nearly as grumpy in that one.


Benjamin Duffy A Walk in the Woods is funny and honest and very worth reading. It's my favorite Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything and Made in America are both very gee-whiz and fun to read.

I was actually interested in Notes from a Small Island, but you make it sound a bit like this book, so maybe I'll skip it. :)


message 3: by Alexander (new)

Alexander Arsov This sounds rather like an American version of ''Neither here, nor there'', Bryson's European travelogue which was the second, and most probably the last, book by him I've read.


Benjamin Duffy So, it sounds as if we've each read one of his travelogues, and none of them were all that great. Having said that, I really do like his research-based books!


D.A. Cairns The writing is unquestionably good. The tone is unquestionably bad. Criticizing people and being nasty for the sake of a laugh is not cool. Bryson doesn't come across as a nice person. I barely cracked a smile, but I really enjoyed the positive evocative descriptions of the few places that he did like.


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