Bill Bryson is retiring. Bill Bryson – who drove us across a lost continent (small-town America); took us on a cross-country trek across a “small island” (Britain); who turned our attention to the science of nearly everything, and held it there for over 15 years.
Bryson, 68, says the lockdown’s had him reading for pleasure for the first time in decades, and really enjoying it. “I’m really quite enjoying doing nothing at all,” he said in a recent interview with Times Radio, London. “Whatever time is left to me on this planet, I’d like to spend it indulging myself… [and my] masses of grandchildren.”
Good for him, but woe is us. Who’s going to collate the scientific discoveries of the 21st century into the next compact, hilarious and engaging book filled with fascinating factoids and origin stories?
Fortunately, he’s left us enough to chew on for a while. He’s written 21 books on travel, science and language. A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) made him famous and won him awards. It’s still a bestseller at airport bookshops and there’s somehow always a copy at every pavement second-hand book stall you encounter.
It’s worth noting that a number of equally enlightening and delightful titles came before and after A Short History. The Dictionary of Troublesome Words (1984) catalogues commonly misused words and phrases to demonstrate preferable and questionable usage; At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010) was written from and about the nooks and crannies of his home, a former rectory built in 1851, in an English village.
“I came from Des Moines. Somebody had to,” reads the oft-quoted first line of his first book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America (1989). His parents worked at the local paper, the Des Moines Register, and so did his brother, nine years older than him.
“It was the family business, you worked in newspapers in my house,” he said in an interview with ABC Science. “So it never occurred to me to do anything else other than go into newspapers.”
He moved to England in his early 20s, while backpacking across Europe. His first job was as an orderly at a sanatorium for the mentally afflicted in Surrey, where he met his wife Cynthia Billen, a nurse. He has four children, ten grandchildren, and has lost all trace of his Des Moines accent.
He won over his adopted country with Notes From a Small Island (1995), which in a 2003 BBC Radio poll was voted the book that best represents England.
Bryson is a most genial writer, with a cheerful disposition. He is that slightly overweight science teacher with smiling eyes and a storehouse of knowledge that many of us didn’t have.
The only thing that makes him mad, it would seem, is litter.
He can be held at knifepoint at Johannesburg or fall on his bottoms on the ice sheets of Norway and get back up with a joke on his lips. But “if you’re walking down the street and you see someone litter, kill them,” he said, when receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Winchester in 2016. “But otherwise be good. Be compassionate. Say thank you.”
Bryson is a numbers guy, but not the dreadful kind. These are some of the numbers he crunched for The Body: A Guide For Occupants — the average body is made of seven billion billion billion atoms; a piece of your brain the size of a grain of sand “could hold two thousand terabytes of information” or enough to store 1.2 billion copies of Bryson’s book; if you laid all your DNA end to end, it would stretch beyond the orbit of Pluto. “Think of it,” he writes, “There is enough of you to leave the solar system.”
His books were always filled with smatterings of fact, unusual trivia and easily accessible science. One of the things that inspired him to write The Body, he’s said, was the fact that he was born with only one kidney and was none the wiser right up to his 60s.
His uncanny ability to make the mundane seem miraculous has won over readers of all ages and across continents. His books, many of which helped us travel the world, have sold over 16 million copies and been translated into over 30 languages. In a time of little to no travel, it’s sad to think there may never be new ones. But the travel industry will be back. Perhaps Bryson will too.