I finished reading In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson this morning. Reading it over the past week has left me with a very strong desire to visit Australia. I desperately want to see for myself all the wonderful things he described. In fact, I wish I was there right now.
So I’ve added Australia to my list of foreign vacations I want to take as soon as I have the time and money. Alas, in this economy and in my circumstances, I have to be content with armchair traveling. Luckily, Bill Bryson is the most fantastic guide you could hope to have while “traveling” via book.
Bill Bryson lovingly takes you on a tour through surprisingly numerous locations and cities in Australia. (This is true for all of his travel memoirs – I doubt many Americans, Australians, or Britons have seen and explored as much of their country as Bill Bryson has.) What makes his travel memoirs excellent is that he combines his good natured and hilarious accounts of his sightseeing and exploration with the most fascinating trivia and history of the places he’s visiting. I improved my knowledge of Australian history by probably about 1000%. (I’ll admit, it was very low to begin with.)
In this passage, he’s describing an exploration of Burke and Wills, who set out on a very doomed expedition to try to find a route from the south coast at Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the far north:
They chose as a leader an Irish police officer named Robert O’Hara Burke, who had never seen a real outback, was famous for his ability to get lost even in inhabited areas, and knew nothing of exploration or science. The surveyor was a young English doctor named William John Wills, whose principle qualifications seem to have been a respectable background and a willingness to go. On the plus side, however, they both had outstanding beards.
Although by this time expeditions into the interior were hardly a novelty, this one particularly caught the popular imagination. Tens of thousands of people lined the route out of Melbourne when, on August 19, 1860, the Great Northern Exploration Expedition set off. The party was so immense and unwieldy that it took from early morning until 4:00 p.m. just to get it moving. Among the items Burke had deemed necessary for the expedition were a Chinese gong, a stationary cabinet, a heavy wooden table with matching stools, and grooming equipment, in the words of the historian Glen McLaren, “of sufficient quality to prepare and present his horses and camels for an Agricultural Society show.”
As you might expect, the expedition did not go well. For a full account, you’ll have to read the book. :) Bill Bryson does excellent research and then chooses the most important as well as the most delightful things to tell his own readers, and tells it in a way that often leaves you laughing or smiling to yourself as you read.
Another passage that I love:
I bought a morning newspaper and found my way into a cafe. It always amazes me how seldom visitors bother with local papers. Personally I can think of nothing more exciting – certainly nothing you could do in a public place with a cup of coffee – than to read newspapers from a part of the world you know almost nothing about. What a comfort it is to find a nation preoccupied by matters of no possible consequence to oneself. I love reading about scandals involving ministers of whom I have never heard, murder hunts in communities whose names sound dusty and remote, features on revered artists and thinkers whose achievements have never reached my ears, whose talents I must take on faith. I love above all to venture into the color supplements and see what’s fashionable for the beach in this part of the world, what’s new for the kitchen, what I might get for my money if I had A$400,000 and a reason to live in Dubbo or Woolloomooloo. There is something about all this that feels privileged, almost illicit, like going through a stranger’s drawers. Where else can you get this much pleasure for a handful of coins?”
One last small paragraph with a line at the end that demonstrates why I love Bill Bryson’s subtle humor so much:
A supervisor-type person came over to make sure we weren’t enjoying ourselves too much. “Cahn I be of assistahnce?” she said in an odd accent that suggested long devotion to a book entitled Elocution Self-Taught. She held her head at an odd angle, too, tilted back slightly as if she were afraid that her eyeballs might fall out.”
In a Sunburned Country is his most recent travel memoir, and it was published in 2000. (Bill Bryson’s African Diary is technically a travel memoir too, and it’s very delightful, but at only 55 small pages it’s really more of an essay.) Since then he’s written A Short History of Nearly Everything (an accessible and fascinating history of the universe and life on earth), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read), and Shakespeare: The World as Stage (though there are many, many books on Shakespeare, I am only interested in this one, because I knew Bill Bryson will be a fascinating and humorous biographer).
But I’m really anxious for him to publish another travel memoir. In late 2007 I was thrilled to be able to see him at a book signing for the paperback of Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. During the Q&A, someone asked him what he was working on next. He replied that he wanted to write something that was every publisher’s nightmare – a book on Canada. He was joking about the fact that books on Canada do not usually sell that well. I think it would be fantastic though, and I feel confident that Bill Bryson would write a best seller. I don’t recall him actually saying he was working on it though, just that he wanted to. Neither his US or UK websites list his current project.
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