Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods is the second of Bill Bryson’s books that I’ve read (the first was Notes from a Small Island), and I think I can now safely call myself a fan of his work. He’s principally a travel writer, but it would be impossible to classify his work so simply. Bill Bryson is a regular renaissance man, and his wide-ranging intelligence shows in his work. A Walk in the Woods is about the eight month long hike that he took along the roughly 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail in 1996. Bryson’s account of his so-called ‘walk through the woods’ would’ve been enough to keep this book at the top of the NY Times bestseller list for so many months, but he rounded out his story with a fairly interesting history of conservation, hiking, the Appalachians and mountain ecology, to name a few.

Bryson has an amazing mind, and his books range over every possible aspect of their subject: history, economics, social effects, ecology, and so on. One thing about Bill Bryson and his work comes to mind before anything else, however: he’s absolutely hilarious. I’m talking laugh out loud, giggle in public funny. I can’t remember how many times I’d start chuckling to myself involuntarily, on the bus, in the back of class, wherever I was. Sometimes I’d read the same line two or three times and just keep laughing.

The most plausible explanation was that any [mountain] lions out there—if [mountain] lions they were—were released pets, bought in haste and later regretted. It would be just my luck, of course, to be savaged by an animal with a flea collar and a medical history. I imagined lying on my back, being extravagantly ravaged, inclining my head slightly to read a dangling silver tag that said: “My name is Mr. Bojangles. If found please call Tanya and Vinny at 924-4667.”

So many of the jokes seem to sneak themselves into the last line of a relatively dry section on botany, or some such thing, which is what makes them work so well. His writing seemed to make me laugh more the further I read into the book; it was as if getting to know his style lets you in on the subtleties and unexpected nature of some of his jokes (perfectly placed in some scholarly section that’s drifting dangerously close to boring). He’s unbelievably intelligent, but he loves to make fun of himself, which is one of the things (besides his wit) that I like best about him. He paints himself as a grinning, bumbling fool, which couldn’t be further from the truth, and loves to recount tales of him whimpering in his tent at the sound of a cracked stick outside. And the best part of reading anything by Bryson is that he’s so good at letting you get to know his characters (namely, himself and a hiking friend) that their slapstick antics get funnier as you learn their personalities better. Reading this book, you might be led to think that Bryson waits for the worst possible situation to strike so that he can write about it and we can laugh about it. I think he just has a great ability to tell stories, and an incredible skill with the English language. Even if you don’t care to learn anything interesting about the Appalachian Trail and its mountains (which, I assure you, you will), you should read this book for its abundance of hearty, smart laughs (as well as chuckles, giggles and big, stupid grins). As with the last of his books I read, I was disappointed to see it end, but he wrapped it up completely perfectly.

(If hiking isn’t your thing, but a road trip around England and Scotland sounds fun, you should read instead Notes from a Small Island, which is easily just as funny and clever as A Walk in the Woods)

No comments: