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Bill Bryson

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English Literature

Bill Bryson is an American author who lives in the UK. He is most well known for his travelogues, such as Notes from a Small Island (1995) and A Walk in the Woods (1997). He has also written multiple non-fiction books, including A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) and The Body (2019).

Bill Bryson: biography

Bill Bryson is an author primarily known for his travelogues, although he has also written novels on topics such as the body, the history of science, and the English language.

Travelogue: a film or book detailing the experiences of a traveller.

Early life and education

Bill Bryson was born in December 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. Bryson's parents were both journalists for the town's local paper. His 2006 novel, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006), is an autobiography of his time growing up in Des Moines. Bryson attended Drake University until 1972, when he dropped out of university for a time. During this period, Bryson backpacked across Europe accompanied by his high school friend, Stephen Katz (a pseudonym). Bryson's experience here would form the basis of his 1991 novel, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.

Life in the United Kingdom

While on his trip around Europe in 1973, Bryson first visited the UK. Bryson enjoyed his stay in the UK and decided to stay longer, getting a job at the Holloway Sanatorium in Surrey. While working there, Bryson met his wife, Cynthia Billen, whom he married in 1975. That same year, the couple briefly returned to Des Moines so Bryson could finish his degree before returning to the UK in 1977. Bryson and his family lived in the UK until 1995, when they moved to America. They would return to England in 2003.

Career

Bill Bryson has previously worked as a journalist and editor for The Times and The Independent. In 1989, he published The Lost Continent (1989), which tracked the author on a road trip across America. This was followed by the travelogue, Notes from a Small Island. This novel was written after Bryson and his family had decided to relocate to America, and the author wanted to have one final trip around the UK. The book functions in the same way as The Lost Continent, as it relays Bryson's final trip around the country while also thinking about its culture and people.

Upon returning to America, Bryson decided to trek the Appalachian Trail (a five to seven months long hiking trail on the East side of America). He was joined in this endeavour by his previous travel companion, Stephen Katz. This journey was depicted in his book, A Walk in the Woods. The novel was praised for its environmental themes and emphasis on conserving America's forests.

Bryson and his family returned to the UK in 2003, coinciding with the publication of his novel, A Short History of Nearly Everything. The novel focuses on the scientific history of Europe and America and has been praised for its accessibility.

Bill Bryson served as the Chancellor of Durham University from 2005 to 2011. He was also the first non-Briton to be elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2014, Bryson achieved dual citizenship for the UK after taking a citizenship test. This made his 2006 OBE (Order of the British Empire) fully valid.

Retirement

In 2020, Bryson announced that he was retiring from writing books. He now lives in rural Hampshire with his wife.

Bill Bryson: books

Bill Bryson has published books including The Lost Continent, Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, and A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Bill Bryson: The Lost Continent

I was heading to Nebraska. Now there's a sentence you don't want to say too often if you can possibly help it.

The Lost Continent was the first novel published by Bryson, and it follows the author as he journeys across America. The novel is set in the autumn of 1987 and the spring of 1988 and centres around Bryson as he travels 22,463 kilometres (or 13,958 miles) around the USA. The author's journey can be divided into two halves: the East and the West. Bryson sets out with the aim to find the perfect town, which he names 'Amalgam' (meaning 'to join'). However, upon returning to his hometown, Des Moines, Iowa, he observes that it may be where he is happiest to live. This novel explores themes of place, identity, racism, and nature.

Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island

Nothing gives the English more pleasure, in a quiet but determined sort of way, than to do things oddly.

Bryson wrote Notes from a Small Island in 1995 as a way to say goodbye to the UK. In the early nineties, the author and his family had decided to relocate to America, and so Bryson set out on a journey across the UK for one final trip. Bryson documents his travels across the country from John O'Groats in Scotland to Essex, using public transport most of the time. While on this trip, Bryson also recollects his early years living in the UK as an American and discusses the differences between the UK and America. The novel explores themes of identity, geography, and nationality.

Did You Know? Bryson spends time in Notes from a Small Island praising the city of Durham. He would late go on to be the Chancellor of Durham University from 2005 to 2011.

Bill Bryson: A Walk in the Woods

I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.

In 1997 A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson was published after he spent the previous year attempting to walk the Appalachian Trail in America. The Appalachian Trail is a 3,500 kilometres (or 2,200 miles) long trail that stretches vertically across 14 states on the east coast of the USA (from Maine down to Georgia). The trail was created in 1934 and takes approximately five to seven months to hike in one go. Bryson is joined by previous travel companion Stephen Katz, and although the two men are unable to hike the full trail, they do learn about its environmental history and the National Parks of America. A Walk in the Woods discusses themes of environmentalism, nature, and human connections.

In 2015, A Walk in the Woods was adapted for the screen starring Robert Redford as Bryson!

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.

In 2003 A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was published. It is a novel that focuses on the scientific history of Europe and America. Bryson discusses the creation of the universe and its size and examines the history of geology and biology. The novel focuses on the scientists behind some of the major discoveries in scientific history. A Short History of Nearly Everything was published to widespread critical praise, and in 2005 it won the EU Descartes Prize for Science Communication. The novel discusses themes of science versus religion, sexism, progress, and discovery.

Bill Bryson: The Body

We spend our whole lives in one body and yet most of us have practically no idea how it works and what goes on inside it. The idea of the book is simply to try to understand the extraordinary contraption that is us.

The Body (2019) was published in 2019 and is one of Bill Bryson's most recent novels. This book is Bryson's second science book, following A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003). The Body (2019) follows Bryson as he explores the human body. This novel focuses on the functions of the body, as well as its ability to heal and recover from illness and injury. The Body (2019) explores themes of humanity, science, and health. In 2020 it was shortlisted for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

Bill Bryson: themes

In his works, Bill Bryson explores themes such as cultural differences and the environment.

Cultural differences

Many of Bill Bryson's books are travelogues, meaning that they feature him on some form of journey. While on these trips, Bryson makes observations about the people he meets and what he can infer about their cultures from this. This is frequently seen in novels such as Neither Here nor There and Notes from a Small Island. Notes from a Small Island sees Bryson pay close attention to how American culture differs from that of the British. This theme was also seen in The Lost Continent, where Bryson compared the idiosyncrasies of people living in different small towns and states across America. One difference between Americans and the British that Bryson included in Notes from a Small Island is highlighted below:

Oh, go on' you prod encouragingly. 'Well, just a small one then,' they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind.

The environment

The environment is also a key theme in Bryson's work that is most evident in novels such as The Lost Continent and A Walk in the Woods. In A Walk in the Woods, Bryson fantasises about leaving city life entirely while on the trail, but he finds that this is impossible due to urban sprawl. This is also seen in The Lost Continent, where he is shocked by the rapid urban development in America and the effect it has had on the environment. At the core of many of Bryson's travelogues is a deep appreciation for nature and the wish to conserve and protect it from modernisation.

America has never quite grasped that you can live in a place without making it ugly, that beauty doesn't have to be confined behind fences, as if a national park were a sort of zoo for nature.

Bill Bryson - Key takeaways

  • Bill Bryson was born in December 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa, America.
  • He is an author who is known for his travelogues.
  • A travelogue is a book that details the experiences of a traveller.
  • Bryson lives in England and has written books about his time there.
  • In 2003 he wrote a novel about the scientific history of Europe and America.

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is an author primarily known for his travelogues, although he has also written novels on topics such as the body, the history of science, and the English language. 

A Short History of Nearly Everything was written in 2003.

A Walk in the Woods was written as Bryson wanted to trek the Appalachian Trail. The novel soon came to centre around the environmental impacts of urbanisation and efforts to preserve the trail. 

A Short History of Nearly Everything is 672 pages long!

Bryson's first novel was The Lost Continent, which he published in 1989.

Final Bill Bryson Quiz

Question

What year was Bill Bryson born?

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1951

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True or False: Bill Bryson was born in England.

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Answer

False! Bill Bryson was born in America.

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Where in America is Bill Bryson from?

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Answer

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Has Bill Bryson written a travelogue?

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Yes! Bill Bryson is well known for the travelogues he has written.

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What is a travelogue?

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Answer

A travelogue is a book (or film) that details the experiences of a traveller. 

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What did Bryson do when he left university in 1972?

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Answer

Went backpacking across Europe with a friend.

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Which book is based on Bryson's experiences backpacking across Europe?

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Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe (1991)

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In The Lost Continent (1989), what country did Bryson travel around?

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America

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Where has Bryson lived most of his life?

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He has lived most of his life in England, except for an eight-year period from 1995 to 2003, when he lived in America. 

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Notes from a Small Island (1995) followed Bryson as he travelled around which country?


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The U.K. 

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What trail does Bryson attempt to hike in A Walk in the Woods (1997)?

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He attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail. 

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Who is Bryson's travel companion in two of his novels?

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Bryson's travel companion is Stephen Katz. He joins him in both Neither Here nor There (1991) and A Walk in the Woods (1997)

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True or False: A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) charts the history of the English Langauge. 

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Answer

False! A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) charts the history of science in Europe and America.

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Question

What are two themes that appear in Bill Byron's work?

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Cultural differences

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True or False: Bill Bryson retired from writing in 2020. 

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True! Bill Bryson retired from writing in 2020.  

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Question

Who wrote Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Answer

Notes from a Small Island (1995 was written by Bill Bryson.

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Where was Bill Bryson born?

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America

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When did Bill Bryson gain British citizenship?

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2014

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True or False: Notes from a Small Island (1995) focuses on the island of Madagascar.

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False! Notes from a Small Island (1995) focuses on the UK.

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What two genres does Notes from a Small Island (1995) fit into?

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Non-fiction

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What is a non-fiction book?

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It is literature that is based on fact.

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What is a travelogue?

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This is literature that recalls the true experiences of a traveller on a journey. 

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What two themes are seen in Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Nationality

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Why did Bill Bryson write  Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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He wrote it as a way to say goodbye to the UK before he moved back to America.

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In which country did Bill Bryson first meet his wife?

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The UK

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Where was Bill Bryson's first job in the UK?


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Bryson's first job was in Holloway Sanitorium in Surrey.

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How many times did Bill Bryson use a car while travelling in Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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2

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Who is the protagonist of Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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Bill Bryson

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When was Notes from a Small Island written?

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It was written in 1995

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Question

How many pages is Notes from a Small Island (1995)?

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It is 324 pages long. 

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