Many people fall in love with Bryson’s work through his travel books and I am no exception. The first book I read from his work, Neither Here Nor There reflects the kind of travel style that I could not only relate to, but wish I could share. The rambling, easy-going, serendipitous experiences he describes is the kind of trip that most of us wish we could take but never make the time to make it happen.
Bryson reflected on the large crowd he had drawn saying that his first reading many years ago was in a Barnes and Noble in Scranton, Pennsylvania and five people came to hear him. Two were his parents’ friends and another attendee was a man who was also named Bill Bryson and had come just to meet someone else with his name.
He didn’t have to be so self-effacing. He kept his audience laughing out loud with the his rare kind of story telling. His writing and speaking style is a mixture of little-know historical detail, real life experiences, and bitingly funny observances of human behavior.
Bryson read from several of his books including African Diary, a chronicle of his travels through Kenya. All of the proceeds and royalties from this book are donated to CARE International, the charity dedicated to working with local communities to eradicate poverty around the world.
Bryson engages with his unique view point and wry sense of humor in recounting some of the dangers he faced during this trip. He offered a sharply observed and hilarious recounting of a white knuckle flight he and his hosts took on a small plane through an intense rain storm during which they discovered that their plane had no windshield wipers.
He also read from one of his newest books, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a reminiscence of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s (“A terrible time to be hungry,” he explained poking gentle fun at his mother’s cooking skills).
The occasion of this reading was in part a celebration of the paperback release of his book, At Home, a short history of private life, and a personal compendium of facts suggesting how the history of houses and domesticity has shaped our lives, language and ideas.
Bryson explained that his inspiration in writing this book came from his desire to explore things we take for granted in everyday life, such as why salt and pepper is on every table instead of some other condiment pairing. He explains, “These are things we take for granted and don’t question when we encounter them in everyday life.”
At the end of the hour, Bryson generously answered his fans’ questions. He said he likes to write books about things that make him curious. His ritual habit when he is writing is to sit down early in the morning with a second cup of coffee in hand and fire up his computer. He describes the first twenty minutes of this experience as filled with dread…but that after 20-30 minutes he has made the transition and is immersed in his task, under his own spell. He explained that while he bases his stories on reality, it is his own version of that reality.
For Bryson fans, his version is one that makes us laugh and recognize the warm connective threads that link us together as fallible beings trying to make sense of our world and experiences.