Defending Bryson

In the most snarky of literary circles, Bill Bryson is too safe. Too vanilla. Too giggly to be taken seriously. He writes travel literature, and he makes silly little jokes and he’s round and white and pseudo-British. He’s a dork. It’s not cool to like Bill Bryson.

With that said, I love him. Thankfully, Sam Jordison of The Guardian has thrown off the shackles of snob-dom and taken the side of Bryson as well: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bill Bryson.”

As I see it, Bryson’s perceived crimes against high art are threefold. He’s easy, he’s popular and he seems to be a thoroughly decent sort. Oh, and he’s always cracking jokes. But (as Bryson himself often says) here’s the thing. His jokes are actually funny. What’s more they’re beautifully crafted. His easy, relaxed style conceals impeccable artistry. His sentences are well measured, neatly shaped and generally delightful. As a creator of epigrams he has no modern rival. He’s been quietly raining down gold from the first two sentences of his first book onwards: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”

I love the guy, it’s true. He rekindled my interest in writing and strenghthened my love of travel. And I don’t get the commonly-held idea that Bryson is too commercial – too safe and boring and simple. I don’t get how a person can pick up his books and not enjoy them. Isn’t that what books are for? Enjoying?

Try as I may, I will never be able to stomach being a literary highbrow. I can’t handle the over-thought verbiage that accompanies most book reviews, and I can’t begin to understand the idea of reading books, hating every word, and spitting bile all over a page in defense of one’s own taste from the oncoming brutal march of horrible prose.

Instead, I find that if I don’t like a book, I stop reading it. I am currently sampling the literary world’s great books and authors in order to become more enlightened, not to have a head up in debate over why Voltaire’s Candide is more essential to the Earth-and-all-that-reside-upon-it than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I like to read. I enjoy books. I often find nothing wrong with books that I read that others have routinely denounced.

I see this in the world of indie rock. A popular band is no longer a viable resource for coolness. So that band is called a “sell out.” It happens all the time. And it’s annoying. Bands are railed upon for not changing their sound. Or, they’re railed upon for changing too much. Bands signing with major label are seen as soft. Obscure bands with no real talent are hailed as brilliant.

It’s the same with books.

If you want to like books, reading, etc., and be seen as an expert, you apparently need to set up a front of critical venom. And often, this means taking popular authors to task for not creating intelligent enough writing. In this way, good writers are thrown aside onto the trash heap, relegated to potboiler status due to their unfortunate ability to sell books.

Some authors are truly no good, in my mind. So I don’t read them. But I can’t deny the fact that there are lots of people who love them, and there are lots of people who buy their books. Danielle Steele may be writing the same novel over and over again, but she’s much richer than I’ll ever be.

Yes, I can be critical. But I try not to be. I respect your opinion. I don’t mind if you like Janet Evanovich or Stephen King. I don’t even mind if you liked Dan Brown – I didn’t mind him, actually, and that’s blasphemy to the literary elite. I have my own “safe, popular” favorites. We all do.

Not everyone is like this, granted. But there are some – those that turn their nose up when you mention the book you’re reading, as if that book might suddenly make them less potent, less of an expert. There are people who make a large noise about how they’re not reading any of the Oprah-selected books, seemingly yelling. “Books aren’t for the proletariat! They’re for the thinking elite! They’re for me and my ilk and not for you pedestrian readers!”

Oh well. Yell as they may, we’ll keep reading our pedestrian wares. I mean, we’re reading, after all. That’s what’s important, right?

This was lovingly handwritten on February 26th, 2007