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Review: The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

Review: The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson post image

Title: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Literary Journalism
Year: 1990
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

One Sentence Summary: After Bill Bryson’s father dies, the author decides to take a roadtrip through 38 states to recreate the feeling of roadtrips from his childhood.

One Sentence Review: Bryson’s characteristic sardonic humor was too dark, mean, and inconsistent for this book to work for me.

Long Review: Travelogue writer Bill Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, but lived for more than a decade in England. After his father’s death, Bryson returned to Des Moines and decided to roadtrip around the country in search of the perfect small town to recapture the feeling of his lost youth and time traveling with his family.

The trip takes two forks — one to the east and one to the west — and carries Bryson through 38 states, exploring the deepest parts of America that few people seem to notice.

I’m a small town sort of girl, so I was really looking forward to Bryson bringing his sense of humor to this exploration. But I ended up really disliking this book, and I’m still trying to figure out why.

I tried to give the book a chance. I thought for awhile my response was visceral, that I was reacting not as a reader of the book and instead was feeling like the subject under attack. After all, I grew up in the suburbs and went to college in almost stereotypical Small Town, USA, so there is a lot of me in this book.

I tried to step back emotionally, to try to be less insulted and more of an analytic reader, but even then the book just didn’t work for me.

A major issue I had throughout was inconsistency. Bryson would come across a diner or a tourist trap in one place and simply hate it. He’d rip it apart in a way that was funny but at the same time, just a little mean. Then just a few pages later he’d hit something else that sounded exactly the same, but instead he’d love it. Every time I felt like I “got” what his sensibility was, he’d do the exact opposite. I never got my footing with his impressions, and without consistency the book just doesn’t hold together.

Bryson’s sense of humor also bothered me in this book. I knew he had a bit of a bite, and wasn’t afraid to call things like he saw them. I liked it when I started Bryson’s earlier memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. But at times in The Lost Continent, it went to far, it made me cringe, and it made me feel bad for the people he was meeting and talking to. It was like he lost the ability to be open-minded and hit every new experience expecting to hate it. That negativity bothers me.

I read another review from 2007 that said the reason the book is this way is because Bryson is furious about the things that have changed in America and that “he harps on this image merely to show how far the myth is from the reality either of America past or America present.” While that may be true, I didn’t feel like the affection Bryson has for the America of his youth ever came through enough to combat  his distaste for what it is now.

I don’t really have much else to say. Other reviews I’ve read run really hot or really cold with this book. I thought I’d be on the love end, but overall didn’t enjoy reading it or feel like I’d recommend it to other people as better than another of Bryson’s books or even representative of him as an author.

But it’s not enough to turn me off Bryson — I just started listening to In A Sunburned Country, his travel book about Australia, which I’m enjoying a lot more and hope I’ll end up being able to recommend.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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  • Elise June 16, 2010, 5:31 am

    I haven’t read any of Bryson’s books but have the Shakespeare one on my TBR pile. Looking forward to getting into it as I have heard lots of good things about his humour and writing style etc. Might steer clear of this one. Although I have never been to America so I would be able to read it with innocent eyes, having never been there. I wonder if this would be an advantage or disadvantage?

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:43 pm

      Elise: I’m not sure if being not American would make reading the book different. I assume it would, and maybe it would be an advantage since perhaps it wouldn’t hit so close to home. It’d be a really interesting perspective.

  • Jason Bates June 16, 2010, 5:43 am

    I have not read TLC, but I have read his “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and “In a Sunburned Country,” and both are fabulous. The first is a history of the persons responsible for every major scientific discovery you’ve ever heard about. The second is a travelogue of Australia.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:44 pm

      Jason: I’m glad to hear In a Sunburned Country is better — so far I’m really enjoying it on audio.

  • Lenore June 16, 2010, 7:07 am

    I’ve always said I was going to read Bryson someday — guess I won’t start with this one!

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:45 pm

      Lenore: I’d suggest not this one. Almost everyone loves A Walk in the Woods, so maybe that one, although I haven’t read it yet.

  • Trisha June 16, 2010, 8:01 am

    I love Bryson’s type of humor, but when an author gets sarcastic/sardonic/snarky/etc., she walks a fine line, and if she steps over, she immediately becomes bitchy instead of funny. It sounds like Bryson lost his ability to walk that line in this book.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:46 pm

      Trisha: Exactly — it’s a very fine line between snark and mean. I’m not sure where it got lost in this one for me, but it just felt like too much. Like he wasn’t even trying to enjoy his trip and was looking to point out what was wrong.

  • Steph June 16, 2010, 8:02 am

    Sorry to hear this was a let down. I’ve not read any Bill Bryson, but on a recent bookstore pillaging, I picked up a bunch of his books to try to assuage my travel bug. I don’t think I picked up this one, and based on your thoughts, I’m glad for that! The little snippets I’ve read of the other books I picked up were really funny but heartfelt.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:47 pm

      Steph: I get the impression he is generally funny and heartfelt — that’s what I’m getting from In A Sunburned Country, but I’m worried that’s because it’s about somewhere else so it’s easy to breeze over what might otherwise be insulting.

  • Kristin June 16, 2010, 9:46 am

    Word. What bothers me most is his open fat-hatred and mockery of anyone who lives in a rural area as simple-minded at best and stupid at worst — there are also traces of misogyny and a heaping dose of classism in several parts. In short, this feels more like a ugly trip through Bryson’s psyche than a trip through the United States. I’m not even halfway through the book and I find my disgust for it often visceral.

    (P.S. I haven’t forgotten that we still need to book club on this, but I was waiting to finish it. I’m getting the sense that might not happen, though, and it might be better to move on…)

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:49 pm

      Kristin: You should write my reviews 🙂 You’re a lot more to-the-point than I am! I do agree with the mockery thing — he doesn’t seem to give people the benefit of the doubt when he meets them and therefore his impressions only get worse from there. I didn’t like that.

  • Care June 16, 2010, 10:48 am

    I have been saying for years that I need to read something by this guy but as of yet, haven’t gotten to it. NOW? Maybe just something ELSE.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:49 pm

      Care: I’ve only ever heard good things about A Walk in the Woods, which is about walking the Appalachian Trail. I’d start with that one, if I had it to do over again.

  • Belle June 16, 2010, 11:07 am

    I really enjoy Bryson’s books, but you’re right – The Lost Continent does have a lot more of a dark tinge to the humor. I enjoyed his other book about America a lot more (I’m a Stranger Here Myself). A funny thing – I had The Lost Continent on my shelves for a long time, and never read it because I thought it was another version of I’m a Stranger Here Myself! Then I picked it up last year and realized it was a different book.

    Hope you enjoy In a Sunburned Country – it’s one of my favorite Bryson books.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:52 pm

      Belle: I want to read I’m a Stranger Here Myself to see if it’s just this book that is so negative, and that I just wasn’t reacting to it badly. Maybe another America book could figure it out.

  • Colleen (Books in the City) June 16, 2010, 11:22 am

    I am a fan of Bryson so I am sorry to hear you did not like this – I haven’t read this particular book yet. I Am A Stranger Here Myself and Notes From a Small Island are two of my favorites.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:53 pm

      Colleen: Good, I’m glad to hear those are some of your favorites! I’ll be looking for them soonish.

  • charley June 16, 2010, 12:08 pm

    It’s good of you to be willing to give Bryson another chance, even though this one didn’t thrill you. The only work I’ve read by him is A Walk in the Woods, which you know I enjoyed, as you commented on my post. I hope you have better luck with him in the future!

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:53 pm

      charley: Everyone loves Bryson, and I can see why, just not exactly with this book.

  • Andi June 16, 2010, 1:14 pm

    From your description, I think the inconsistency would leave me feeling unseated, too. Don’t think I’d like this one at all. I have A Walk in the Woods which I hear almost completely favorable reviews about, so I’ll probably start there with Bryson. Enjoy In a Sunburned Country!

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:55 pm

      Andi: That was a big part — it was too grouchy and idiosyncratic to feel like the impressions were real rather than just it. And I’ve heard similar things about A Walk in the Woods, so I hope you like it!

  • Aarti June 16, 2010, 3:22 pm

    I haven’t read this one, and didn’t know it garnered such strong reactions by readers! I read I’m a Stranger Here Myself, which also really pokes fun at America in shorter essays, but I never got the impression he disliked America in it. Hmm. Maybe I should read this just to see. I wonder if you like In a Sunburned Country more because it’s about Australia and not about America and perhaps aren’t as sensitive to what he might be mocking? If I recall correctly, there was a somewhat condescending tone in that book, too, though I found it hilarious.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:56 pm

      Aarti: I spent a lot of time wondering that myself. I don’t want to have disliked the book because I was too sensitive about teasing America, and I really debated that while reading and while writing the review. But in the end I don’t think it was that, and really some of the other problems with the book coupled with it. I’d be curious what people not from the United States think, so let me know if you end up reading this one!

  • Jenny June 16, 2010, 6:47 pm

    I had some of the same reaction to the Bryson book I read, Notes on a Small Island – sometimes I thought his humor was very funny indeed, but a lot of times I just found it mean. And I am not wild about these fish-out-of-water city-kid-in-the-country books/films, because I think it’s very easy to teeter into classism.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:58 pm

      Jenny: That’s a point Kristin made that at some points seems valid — I can get a little sense of classicism in In a Sunburned Country, but he is traveling by train and so that always just sounds sort of snooty to me 🙂

  • Jeanne June 17, 2010, 8:20 am

    I liked I am a Stranger Here Myself, A Walk in the Woods, and In a Sunburned Country. The other ones, not so much. I thought this one about small-town America was just curmudgeonly–places weren’t what they were when he was young, so he didn’t like them. Well, okay, Bryson, but that gets you put on my list of old guys whose opinions really don’t matter to me.

    • Kim June 17, 2010, 6:58 pm

      Jeanne: Ha ha, exactly. Just because things are different doesn’t make them bad, and spending the whole trip wanting things to be the way they used to be isn’t going to end up well for anyone.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 18, 2010, 8:53 pm

    I’ve only read one Bryson book and I enjoyed it, so I’m bummed to see this one is a stinker.

    • Kim June 20, 2010, 9:41 am

      bermudaonion: I was too, I wanted to like it since he was exploring and writing about places I actually am familiar with and have an affection for. Oh well, try again I guess 🙂

  • Laurie June 19, 2010, 9:05 am

    Bill Bryson’s books are very strange. His schtick seems to be this outraged sensibility that time should not change anything, that places should remain quaint and preserved in a way that would be most unnatural. He travels alone, usually, and he seldom engages anyone that he meets along the way; most of his travel writing is vivid and interesting (and, as you say, mean), but he remains an outsider; usually he goes back to the pub and has dinner and a few beers and goes to bed, and you never get the sense that he has involved himself in a place.

    I do like “A Walk in the Woods,” though it’s been years since I read it.

    if you want to read the Best Travel Writer Ever, read Eric Newby. His humor is always turned on himself, never on the people or places. He engages with locals. He does his homework, and you learn tons. He is very witty, very subtle, very charming, very understated. My favorite: “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.” But all of his books are terrific.

    • Kim June 20, 2010, 9:43 am

      Laurie: I’m just a little ways into “In a sunburned Country, and you’re sort of right — he does just explore, but never really engage with people. I suppose that works in some cases, but it doesn’t let him get past a lot of stereotypes. I’ll definitely being paying attention to it more.

      Thanks for the recommendation for Eric Newby — I’m going to go see if I can find one soon!

  • Sarah Vig June 20, 2010, 11:47 am

    I think I discussed this book a little bit with you while I was reading it last year and it was somewhere on your “To Read” list. My reaction was very similar to yours. Though I enjoyed the dogged humor about his youth in small-town Iowa, once the bite to the humor stopped being self-deprecating and started just being deprecating, I stopped being enchanted. I think maybe “A Walk in the Woods” will suit my tastes better.

    • Kim June 22, 2010, 4:26 pm

      Sarah: I think A Walk in the Woods will, especially given your time down in North Carolina. I’ve only heard people say they like that book, whereas this one has gotten a lot of mixed reviews from the other places I’ve read about it.

  • Jesisca June 21, 2010, 11:51 am

    I’ve read most of Bryson’s books and The Lost Continent is easily my least favorite. It was his first travelogue and it shows. The book feels very disjointed and as I read it I kept thinking what a chronically pissed off person Bryson must have been when he wrote it. Nothing pleases him. You can almost feel him reeling from his father’s death. It’s as if, in finding that perfect small town that time forgot, he’ll bring his father back. But of course such an endeavor is doomed to fail. If Bryson had recognized the reason for his angsty search and come to see the futility of it, the book could have been really good. But he didn’t and it isn’t.

    If TLC was my first Bryson book it would surely have been my last. Fortunately my introduction to Bryson began with “A Walk in the Woods” and “Sunburned Country”. I would highly recommend either of these books.

    • Kim June 22, 2010, 4:27 pm

      Jessica: I didn’t realize it was his first one — that’s interesting! I do think his father’s death and the emotions from that play a part in the book and maybe made him more angry when writing it than he should have been. I agree with you that if there’d be more personal growth of sorts in the book it might have been redeemed more in the end, but sadly that just wasn’t there.

  • Christy June 22, 2010, 1:11 pm

    Oh yes, I hated The Lost Continent. The first chapter was actually very funny, but the actual travel-and-rant meat of the book was mean and boring.

    A Walk in the Woods, on the other hand, is hilarious and I loved it.

    • Kim June 22, 2010, 4:28 pm

      Christy: That seems to be a general consensus with this one. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t a fan.

  • Carin B. June 29, 2010, 11:18 pm

    I am glad other people disliked this book. We read it in my real life book club a few years ago and I was really put off by it. I bought it at Half-Price Books and didn’t realize that I had bought a UK edition of the book until after I finished reading it. His going on about how great England was and how horrible the States were really irritated me since all the spelling was British spelling (i.e., favourite, colour, etc.). By the end I said, “If you hate America so much then just go back to England.” (This was of course all before I knew I had bought the UK edition). I have to admit that I did take it personally because he railed on the name of the mountains in my hometown without knowing why they were named that. It was pure ignorance and by the end I just wanted to throw the book in the fireplace. Don’t worry…I didn’t. I think I just took it back to Half-Price books and got paid $0.50 for it or something! Hehe!

    Most of the people in the group liked it I will say, but I didn’t like the snark or his humor. I thought it was fairly mean-spirited toward all the towns he passed through only to come full circle at the end and say how nice it was to be back home in Iowa (after he trashed it at the beginning). I’m glad his other books were better. Maybe I’ll give him another try.

    • Kim June 30, 2010, 9:20 pm

      Carin: Yeah, a UK version of this book could have been really off-putting, I think, even more than it already was. It’s hard not to take it personally, and I attribute some of the dislike to my background and affection for some of this stuff… but not all of it. The snark was too high for me too.

  • Cindy Dwyer February 20, 2012, 7:59 pm

    I enjoyed Thunderbolt Kid and Walk in the Woods. But he does have a snarky side. In Walk, he talked about a woman they met – and tried to lose! – on the trail and at several points I found myself thinking, “Wow. She’s going to be really hurt when she reads this.”

    • Kim February 22, 2012, 7:20 pm

      I started Thunderbolt Kid, but never finished it… I can’t remember why. Maybe it was an audio and I ran out of car time. I was enjoying it though, so I’ll have to grab it again sometime.