The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

The Lost ContinentThe Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Originally published May 12th, 2013
My thought process as I was reading this book ran along these lines:
“Oh man! This is so exciting! This has gotta be one of the first books Bill Bryson ever wrote! I love this guy!”
“Wow. This has some…colorful…commentary.”
“This may be the most offensive Bryson book I’ve read to date.”
“Ok, this is definitely the most offensive Bryson book I’ve ever read.”
“You can’t knee old ladies in the head! You just can’t! Even if she does butt ahead of you in line! And I don’t see what her being a Baptist has to do with it!”
And so on. In most of his other books, he doesn’t make comments like this, except when it comes to bureaucratic incompetence, abuse of power, or discrimination. But for this book, for whatever reason, he really let the snide go. Farmers, the poorly-mannered, the overweight, and Southerners seem to be the focus of Bryson’s criticism. Now, I can understand taking pot shots at people who are rude. And Bryson’s criticism of Southerners centers around recent (at the time of publication) race-related issues where the white denizens of the South fell far short of treating the non-white citizens with anything that even resembled equality. But farmers? Why farmers? And overweight women are a constant target. It became painful to read, and anyone for whom weight is a sensitive issue may want to avoid this book outright. But I’ll let you make your own decision about that.
Aside from the critical commentary, it’s pretty standard fare. I came to the end of the book almost certain that Bryson knows the birthplace of every American celebrity ever born. And that he has a deep and abiding hatred of ice cream parlours, although I’m not sure why. Personally, if I’m travelling it’s always a joy and a delight to come across a quality ice cream shop, no matter what season it is. For Bryson they are a sure sign a town has started down the path to evil, into the dark alleys of tourism and kitsch. They’re the business version of the “slippery slope” as far as he is concerned. Or maybe a gateway drug. First it’s ice cream parlours, then theme parks, and then one morning you wake up and your lovely, unique little town is gone, replaced by a soul-sucking tourist trap. A sordid tale we saw enacted time and time again, as Bryson re-travelled the vacation routes of his youth. While he was harsh with towns that he felt had turned into tourist traps, or had squandered some important historical claim to fame, Bryson is also careful to give credit where credit is due, and lauds places where the town is lovely, the history is cared for and well presented, and the life of the town focuses on the people who live there and not on sucking the money out of the people who visit. I don’t know how well it would serve as a travel guide now, but in the 80’s I would have used it.

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