Bill Bryson – a ’90s look at the lost continent

Do you know anyone from Iowa?  An American politician running for President claims her Midwest roots from Iowa; the farm state is known for its corn and one of the best writing schools in the country.  Bill Bryson’s first line in The Lost Continent

“I come from Des Moines (Iowa). Somebody had to…”

sounds like the opening line of a novel, but The Lost Continent is the prolific writer’s first travel book, his wry view of America – published in 1990.

After ten years in England, Bryson returned to his roots in America, embarking on the cross-country road-trip that many young Americans have tried – some in a Volkswagen bus.  Bryson travels in two loops (Parts 1 and 2), stopping at name-dropping sites along the way.  He sweeps through Mark Twain’s Missouri, Faulkner’s Mississippi, Elvis’s Tupelo, Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee, F.D.R.’s Warm Springs, and Vanderbilt’s Biltmore, and up through colonial Williamsburg, mostly disappointed by what he finds.  Washington’s Mount Vernon was “everything Williamsburg should have been and was not.”  But, Maryland Eastern shore’s Chestertown was…

“…the model community…The sidewalks were paved with brick and lined with trees, and there was a well-tended park in the business district. The library was busy. The movie theater was still in business and not showing a “Death Wish” movie.  Everything about the place was tranquil and appealing. This was as nice a town as I had seen.  This was almost Amalgam.”

Bryson sprinkles his sight-seeing with childhood memories and evaluations of waitresses at the places he stops along the way.  After looping back to Des Moines for some of his mother’s sandwiches, he heads out again – West, through Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, the Grand Canyon, the National Parks, and back.  By this time, you may be feeling like the child in the backseat asking – “Are we there yet?”

The cover has a coffee-cup stain as part of the illustration – the detritus of the seasoned traveler.  Bryson has gone on to leave his mark in his written ramblings – most recently in At Home: A Short History of Private Life (watch the book trailer on You Tube here).

When reading The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, you might be tempted to skip around – go ahead; you will still get Bryson’s flavorful asides along with his views of how the American small town is being lost to progress. As I joined Bryson on his search for the perfect American town (Amalgam), I wondered what he would think of the changes in those places now – twenty years later.  A hotel room in New York’s Times Square for $100 might have been pricey in 1990, but sounds pretty cheap today.

10 thoughts on “Bill Bryson – a ’90s look at the lost continent

  1. I don’t actually listen to audio books of my own, I get distracted too easily and miss parts (I’ve tried a couple of times, but have given up). My husband usually downloads a couple when we are heading out camping, as the mp3s are the only electronics allowed on our trips.

    I listen to a lot of young adult and children’s audio books however, as my son almost always has one on when he’s home. Right now he’s listening to Rick Riordan’s The Lost Heros. He’s already read it, so doesn’t mind when he misses parts, plus he listens to audio books about 10 times before they go back to the library. I’m missing parts of it as I go about my day, so I think I may have to read my son’s hard copy as the story is pulling me in and I want to know what’s happened!

    • That’s actually a great idea – to listen to a book already read – especially one I want to read again. By the way, I’m a Rick Riordan fan too.

  2. I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson’s writing (although this is not my favourite book of his I did enjoy it). My mum can’t stand his writing. I find that with many people — either you love his style or it drives you a little batty. My husband loved The Thunderbolt Kid, he has the audiobook on his mp3 and I’ll still hear him chuckling away at it every once in a while.

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