Bill Bryson is hilarious. If you’ve never read anything by him, you need to go and do so right now. I’ll wait.
There. See? Hilarious.
I first encountered Bryson by accident when I picked up A Short History of Nearly Everything in Chapters and started leafing through it. He quickly became one of those authors whom I will read anything by. I haven’t yet dented his collection of travel books, but he has a book on the history of the English language that is so far up my alley that I’m convinced he’s been reading my diary (which reads thusly: Dear Diary, I sure do wish someone would write a witty and informative history of the English language, and that someone would invent a negative-calorie bundt cake).
H’anyways, this latest of Bryson’s offerings somehow showed up in my school’s weeny library, and I snapped it up. To be honest, it’s not the greatest of his books, but that’s like saying that this isn’t the greatest Lindor chocolate you’ve ever had. It’s still a Lindor chocolate.
Partially a recounting of Bryson’s first fifteen years, mostly a semi-history of America in the Fifties, The Life and Times is an amusing, if meandering, bit of national trivia. Bryson lovingly recounts an age when people were enthralled with their appliances, inviting the neighborhood ’round to check out the new Stor-Mor refrigerator, and when the prospects of a future filled with space colonies and moving sidewalks was still bright and beautiful, not all bleak and Big-Brother-heavy. Bryson’s was a quieter, gentler childhood, with large amounts of time devoted to evening out recalcitrant laces, loitering around the lumberyard on the off chance that someone might lose a finger or two, or peeling labels off of jars to pass the time. It’s a far cry from today’s world, with its Dora the Illegal Immigrant and Guitar Hero III.
This is a different Bill Bryson than I am used to. From what I remember, A Short History was something I could share with my grandma without blushing. The Bill Bryson of The Life and Times uses the eff-word, if not frequently, at least with a cavalier glibness that surprised me, and refers to the television version of Superman as ‘flabb[y] around the tits’. I’m not complaining, because I think swears can be used to great comic effect (see: Mitch Hedburg). I’m just saying.
He’s also a bit looser here than in his other books. Though Bryson’s great strength is in his story-telling, his other books at least had ‘Here’s a point, and here’s a story to liven up that point.’ Life and Times is a story, and a story, and a story, and the only connecting thread is Bryson himself or the Fifties. One of these two things is guaranteed to figure largely.
For anyone who is completely ignorant of the past, and who likes to learn about things in the most painless way possible, this is a great overview of a decade in American history. And for those who lived through the Cold War, who remember a time before computers and Velcro, this might be a pleasant bit of nostalgia. For anyone who loves a good bit of a read, this’ll do.