Tag Archives: Bill Bryson

I want it all

Another one I stumbled upon while browsing through Bill Bryson’s fabulous book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America:

In the evening I sat in Hal and Lucia’s house, eating their food, drinking their wine, admiring their children and their house and furniture and possessions, their easy wealth and comfort, and felt a sap for ever having left America.  Life was so abundant here, so easy, so convenient.  Suddenly I wanted a refrigerator that made its own ice-cubes and a waterproof radio for the shower.  I wanted an electric orange juicer and a room ionizer and a wristwatch that would keep me in touch with my biorhythms.  I wanted it all.  Once in the evening I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and walked past one of the children’s bedrooms.  The door was open and a bedside light was on.  There were toys everywhere — on the floor, on shelves, tumbling out of a wooden trunk.  It looked like Santa’s workshop.  But there was nothing extraordinary about this; it was just a typical middle-class American bedroom.

And you should see American closets.  They are always full of yesterday’s enthusiasms: golf-clubs, scuba diving equipment, tennis-rackets, exercise machines, tape recorders, darkroom equipment, objects that once excited their owner and then were replaced by other objects even more shiny and exciting.  That is the great, seductive thing about America — the people always get what they want, right now, whether it is good for them or not.  There is something deeply worrying and awesomely irresponsible, about this endless self-gratification, this constant appeal to the baser instincts.

Do you want zillions off your state taxes even at the risk of crippling education?

‘Oh, yes!’ the people cry.

Do you want TV that would make an imbecile weep?

‘Yes, please!’

Shall we indulge ourselves with the greatest orgy of consumer spending that the world has ever known?

‘Sounds neat! Let’s go for it!’

The whole of the global economy is based on supplying the cravings of two per cent of the world’s population.  If Americans suddenly stopped indulging themselves, or ran out of closet space, the world would fall apart.  If you ask me, that’s crazy. (pp. 158-9)

The book is 20 years old, so it may sound a bit dated, but his perspective (he is an American ex-pat in the UK)  is one many of us now share (even if we fall within that category of the middle-class and don’t know what to do about).

National Parks Visitors’ Centres

It’s no secret that Bill Bryson is my favourite author.  It might be less well-known that The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America is one of my favourite Bryson books (second only, perhaps, to A Walk in the Woods). I pulled The Lost Continent off the shelf this evening and opened it randomly and found myself following him on his visit to Philadelphia (not exactly small town, but whatever), where I happened upon this truth:

National park visitors’ centres are always the same.

He explains:

They have some displays in glass cases that manage to be both boring and uninformative, a locked auditorium with a board out front saying that the next showing of the free twelve-minute introductory film will be at 4 p.m. (just before 4 p.m. somebody comes and changes it to 10 a.m.), some racks of books and brochures with titles like Pewter in History and Vegetables of Old Philadelphia, which are too dull even to browse through, much less buy, and a drinking fountain and rest-rooms, which everyone makes use of because there’s not much else to do.  Every visitor to every national park goes into the visitors’ centre, stands around kind of stupidly for a while, then has a pee and a drink of water and wanders back outside (p. 156).

It’s funny ’cause it’s true, in Canada as well.