Wednesday, April 15, 2009
by Bill Bryson
Meh. It is rare that I bother to start, much less finish, a book I don't end up liking, but lo! it happened here. To compare this offering to yesterday's author, Bill Bryson loses the Battle-of-the-Baby-Boomers-Who-Complain-About-Society, (Which is a very serious competition I just invented).
I don't want to sound too hard on Bryson, really, because I can't read this book and tell you that he isn't a good writer - he is. I can't tell you that he isn't funny either because I certainly got worked up to a proper LOL from time to time while slogging through this. This is the only book of his I've read, so if a fan of his were to assure me that any of his others was much better, I would be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And certainly Mr. Bryson comes off as charming. I'm sure I'd absolutely love to have a barbecue with him sometime. It'd be a blast.
But this book still sucks. Allow me to explain.
I picked it up because the premise sounded great: A man grows up in America, spends twenty adult years in Britain, then moves back to America and chronicles the culture shock. By all accounts this book should, at worst, make for good fluff. But too much is going against this thing.
First, unbeknownst to me when I started reading, this is a collection of newspaper columns. Y'know, newspapers? Those hoary old ink-and-paper jobs? No matter how smart Bryson is, you can't change the fact that newspaper columns, especially newspaper humor columns, are basically watered down pap designed to incubate people who still haven't discovered the Internet.
To compare him with another popular humor columnist, Dave Barry, I will say that he is less formulaic, though still prone to the overuse-of-hyperbole-for-comic-effect, and much more thoughtful. But that only goes so far.
The real problem is that these columns were written in the nineties. This is a bigger deal than you think it is. If you're a Baby Boomer in the nineties and not an unashamed technophile like my father was, chances are you're going to write a bunch of columns that smugly dismiss new technologies. Baby Boomers in the nineties talked about computers like they were pogs, and waited impatiently for them to go out of style.
What this means is this book will subject you to such dead horse jokes as "Computers are supposed to save us time, but I can't get the printer to work." "Cell phones make me uncomfortable." and the immortal "VCRs are hard to program." Hur hur hur.
What I'm getting at is this book is only ten years old and it has already fallen down the abyss of antiquity. One's inability to program a VCR has already achieved old-timey camp status, a joke meant to place us squarely in 1991.
Much of this book has no cultural currency anymore, even to people the author's own age. The Baby Boomers aren't complaining anymore. They all have Netflix and Blu-ray and small business websites. Bill Bryson himself is, right now, deftly programming his TiVo while uploading twitter feeds to his Facebook profile from his Blackberry cell phone, (It might be something like "Bill Bryson isn't going to miss an episode of House this season!") In 2009, Bill Bryson is awesome. In 1999, he's an idiot.