Book Review: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America by Bill Bryson
If I am completely honest with you, when I began to read The Lost Continent, I wasn’t really a fan. I don’t know why, but something about the tone of the book just rubbed me the wrong way. It has taken me a few weeks to get through it, something which rarely happens to me. But now, sitting here on the other side, I can tell you my mind has changed.
I picked this book up in a second-hand shop here in Edinburgh a while back. I felt duty-bound to read some Bill Bryson before I left this country as my undergraduate university library bore his name. It only took me three and a half years to actually get to it. Not too bad. I decided that I should read The Lost Continent first rather than one of his more popular books so that I could go through them in chronological order, seeing how his writing changed over the years. So ₤3.20 later, I got to it.
The good thing about this story is I don’t have to worry about spoilers as it is more of a travel book than a novel. There isn’t really a ‘plot’ I’d say. I mean, the story documents Bryson’s road trip across 38 states in search of his ideal town ‘Amalgam’, but it is more of a journal and less of a story if that makes sense. Like I said, there are no real spoilers.
‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.’
– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
As far as first lines go, this book has a winner. It captures the cynicism and sass that pepper the pages of this book in eight little words. The first part of the book follows Bryson east through the Midwest and up the east coast, and the second follows a similar path around the west. I was partial to the New England section, but I’m also biased in that department. The story is a unique combination of travel guide, social commentary, and memoir.
The thing that I struggled with, I think, was the negative tone which the author took. A bit of self-deprecation or making fun of the stupid things Americans do (because let’s face it, there are some weird things we do) is fine, but I felt that at times it went a little too far. It was just certain sections that rubbed me the wrong way, though this could have been his intention in the first place.
I should keep in mind this was written in the 1980s, so he is reporting on a different America to the one I know in some ways. The one thought that kept popping into my mind after every gas station and strip mall was ‘I wonder if it is still like this’. If I were to trace his footsteps now, would I find a similar world?
This is a question which plagued his journey as well. His visits to places from his fondest childhood memories were poignant, disappointing, and surprising for the author. Whether it was seeing his grandparent’s old house or finally catching a glimpse of the Grand Canyon, this trip was just as much about reacquainting himself with the country he left as an adult and revisiting the one he knew as a child.
What changed my mind and made me warm to this book was how he talks about the feeling of being a stranger in his own country. Now I have only been living outside the US for four years compared to his ten, but that is still a long time. There are things that I miss about the United States every day, like good peanut butter and Thanksgiving, but there are also things from the UK that I will be sad to be without – things like Britain’s knack for making quality quiz shows and amazing public transportation.
‘I mused for a few moments on the question of which was worse, to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted, or a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored.’
-Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
The only way I can explain it is feeling like you are caught ‘mid-Atlantic’, a phrase I picked up from one of my old high school teachers. I had never moved in my life before I came to England back in 2012. Knowing that I won’t be coming back to the UK for an indefinite period of time is a weird thing to come to terms with.
I’d like to take a road trip similar to Bryson’s while I’m back in the states. I’d like to see the places he saw and see how things have changed in a few decades. Maybe they won’t have. Besides, who of us isn’t searching for their own Amalgam, their own place to belong?
If you are looking for a sassy, insightful read about an old-school American road trip or the rediscovery of places you once knew, this is definitely a good fit for you! With Bryson’s sharp wit and gift for making the monotonous mean something, you are in good hands. He takes you on a journey through his own country and through his own childhood without ever jumping up onto a soap box or falling into a spiral of excessive nostalgia. The facts and statistics that he throws in do well to illustrate the hurdles that the country needed to, and still needs to in some cases, face.
I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the near future.
If you want to see what I am reading now, check out my current bookshelf here.