The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

'I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to'And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn't hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instea...

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Title:The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
Author:Bill Bryson
Rating:
ISBN:0060920084
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:299 pages

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America Reviews

  • Leftbanker
    Sep 27, 2007

    A dyspeptic man in his middle thirties, whose constant bad mood seems more like someone in their mid seventies, drives around the U.S. and complains about absolutely everything he sees, smells, hears, and eats. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, read Bill Bryson’s

    (Abacus, 1990).

    He constantly mocks small towns in America by referring to them by such names as Dog Water, Dunceville, Urinal, Spigot, and Hooterville—and this is in the first five pages. Don’t worry about him running out of clever names for hick towns; Bryson has a million of them and he uses every single one.

    The only things about which Bryon has a favorable view are natural wonders and the homes of rich people. He marvels at the obscenely-posh residences of ultra-wealthy, early 20th century industrialists on Mackinac Island which were built before income taxes and most labor laws. He would probably be thrilled with pre-revolutionary France or Czarist Russia. One of his very few favorable reviews of American cities was of the ski town of Stowe, Vermont which caters almost exclusively to the rich.

    When he is traveling through the southwest he complains about the Mexican music on the radio. He seems more content to resort to chauvinism than to come to some sort of understanding about the culture he is visiting. In my opinion, it’s always more interesting to praise something that you understand than to mock something that you don’t. I would have taken the time to translate a few of the songs and tell readers what they are about. In fact, I have done this and Mexican ranchera music is all about stories of love, heartbreak, and often violence which describe the cowboy culture of Mexico’s northern territories. Bryson implies that the people who listen to this music are just too stupid to realize that it is only one tune played over and over.

    He gripes about a weatherman on TV who seems rather gleeful at the prospect of a coming snow storm yet Bryson seems to relish in the idea of not liking anything that he experiences in his journey. His entire trip is like a storm he passes through. Just once I wanted him to roll into some town that he liked and get into an interesting conversation with one of its residents.

    Here are examples of the cheeriness with which Bryson opens a few of his chapters:

    This last event must have brought untold joy to the young writer.

    Tell us more, Bill. His narrative is more tiresome than any Kansas wheat field he may have passed on his road trip through hell. Most Americans seem to be either fat, or stupid, or both in the eyes of Bryson. I can only assume that Bryson himself is some sort of genius body builder. Just one time I wanted him to talk to a local resident over a beer or a cup of coffee. I wanted him to describe his partner in conversation as other than fat or stupid. Not even one time do we hear about a place from somebody who lives there. We could just as easily have read the guidebooks as Bryson did and he could have stayed home and saved himself thousands of miles of misery.

    Whenever someone starts to tell me about somewhere they went I ask them to describe their favorite thing about the trip, be it a place, food, the people, or whatever. If they start to complain about the place I either change the subject or walk away if I can. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, not make it narrower.

  • Tommy
    Dec 06, 2007

    Well, ain't it somethin for dat rascally Mr. Bryson wit all o dat funny Northern talk to make his way down here to Dixie and spend some time wid us! We sure do 'ppreciate you takin us into your rich and well-knowed book, Mr. Bryson. And yer gosh-darn-right, God save all those poor folk who done shopped at K-Mart! They should've spent their nickels at Crate & Barrel had they knowed what to do wid demselves.....

  • Michael
    Jan 02, 2008

    While in the Frankfurt airport killing time, I decided I needed something to read while waiting in the airport and on the long flight back. During my vacation, I had already read Paulo Freire's

    , Judith Butler's

    , and Yves Simon's

    , as well as most of two issues of

    and an issue of

    . I was a bit tired of academic voices and theory (though I had enjoyed everything I read, except perhaps Simon, whose Thomistic perspective irked me a

    While in the Frankfurt airport killing time, I decided I needed something to read while waiting in the airport and on the long flight back. During my vacation, I had already read Paulo Freire's

    , Judith Butler's

    , and Yves Simon's

    , as well as most of two issues of

    and an issue of

    . I was a bit tired of academic voices and theory (though I had enjoyed everything I read, except perhaps Simon, whose Thomistic perspective irked me and whose writing seemed dry), so I went to the bookstore and perused. The English section was limited, so I was left trying to decide between a collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood and

    by Bill Bryson.

    Bryson, a native Iowan who had moved to Britain, had been haunting me for years. If someone was knowledgeable of travel writing, they asked me about him. I have some acquaintances who have been shocked that I hadn't read any of him. I was holding Atwood's book and Bryson's book, weighing the pros and cons of each. So I read Bryson first paragraph:

    and decided I had to read this. Iowa-deprecating humour? I was excited. Maybe this book would be worth the astronomical 14 Euros (which, with the exchange rate, is about 1 million dollars).

    I admit I was chuckling a lot during his first few pages, and even occasionally throughout the rest of his book. However, it wasn't before too long that his book just began to annoy me. Every attempt at humor in his book, besides some self-deprecation or making fun of his family, is targeted shots at those who are different from him. Bryson's book seems like a good example of how to enact the construction of "normal." Overweight? Here's a few jokes thrown at you. An accent that isn't accepted as standard? He'll mock you incessantly. Differently abled and in the same room as Bryson? You're there for one purpose alone: to stare at because you're a freak.

    I haven't quite finished the book, and I probably will (I only have about 50 pages left), but I have to say I'm greatly disappointed. The sour icing smothered the cake when he announced that, feeling incredibly visible and alone in a nearly all black Southern town, that he now knew what it was like to be black in South Dakota.

    I beg your pardon, Mr. Bryson, but you have no idea what it's like to be black anywhere. If anything, Bryson's book is a chronicling of his extreme naiveté at his own unearned privilege.

    It seems like the only group not worth mocking in his book are queer folk, and that's probably because they are so invisible to him that they're not even on the radar to mock. Jokes about other people can be amazingly funny, but a book constructed completely on mocking others, a book that seems to function mostly as a reinforcement of normalcy, fails to continue to be funny. It's just tiring.

    I should have picked up Atwood's book instead.

  • Ciara
    Mar 13, 2008

    This is the worst book ever. Bryson is a fat, cynical white guy traveling around the country, proclaiming in the subtitle: "Travels in Small Town America." But like most fat white guys, Bryson is scared of small town America. He hates every small town he comes to- whether they're on Indian reservations, small farming communities in Nebraska, southern towns full of African Americans where the author is too scared to even stop the car, or small mining communities in West Virginia, also where the a

    This is the worst book ever. Bryson is a fat, cynical white guy traveling around the country, proclaiming in the subtitle: "Travels in Small Town America." But like most fat white guys, Bryson is scared of small town America. He hates every small town he comes to- whether they're on Indian reservations, small farming communities in Nebraska, southern towns full of African Americans where the author is too scared to even stop the car, or small mining communities in West Virginia, also where the author is too scared to stop. How can you write a book about small town America when you're too scared to stop in any small towns??? His favorite towns? Pittsburg and Charlotte. (Definitely "small" in my world.)

    Driving through the north woods, crossing the border from Maine to New Hampshire: "The skies were still flat and low, the weather cold, but at least I was out of the montony of the Maine woods."

    In Littleton, on the Vermont border: "People on the sidewalk smiled at me as I passed. This was beginning to worry me. Nobody, even in America, is that friendly. What did they want from me?"

    At a cemetery in Vermont: "I stood there in the mile October sunshine, feeling so sorry for all these lukles speople and their lost lives, reflecting bleakly on mortality and my own dear, cherished family so far away in England, and I thought, 'Well, fuck this,' and walked back down the hill to the car."

    At least he freely refers to himself as a "flinty-hearted jerk-off."

    Maybe Mr. Bryson should get off his lazy ass, stop whining about England, and actually stop the car once in a while. This book spouts so much hateful white guy racism that I can't even bring myself to give it away. While I am 100% against burning or destroying any kind of book, I simply cannot let this one leave my hands. It will probably just find someone who agrees with it's horrible twisted and pessimistic point of view! I haven't decided if I'm going to just bury it in my storage space (which may mean when I leave my apartment someone else might pick it up), or "accidentally" drop it in a snowbank outside. At least in spring the pages would all be glued together, and no one would be able to read it ever again.

  • Karen
    May 18, 2008

    When reading this book, American readers may very well feel like they are eavesdropping on a conversation not intended for their ears. This is because Bill Bryson obviously intended this book to be read by a British audience.

    There are lots of laughs in this book. His depictions of Iowa made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. For example, his explanation for why so many farmers are missing fingers:

    "Yet, there is scarcely a farmer in the Midwest over the age of twenty who has not at some time

    When reading this book, American readers may very well feel like they are eavesdropping on a conversation not intended for their ears. This is because Bill Bryson obviously intended this book to be read by a British audience.

    There are lots of laughs in this book. His depictions of Iowa made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. For example, his explanation for why so many farmers are missing fingers:

    "Yet, there is scarcely a farmer in the Midwest over the age of twenty who has not at some time or other had a limb or digit yanked off and thrown into the next field by some noisy farmyard implement. To tell you the absolute truth, I think farmers do it on purpose. I think working day after day beside these massive threshers and balers with their grinding gears and flapping fan belts and complex mechanisms they get a little hypnotized by all the noise and motion. They stand there staring at the whirring machinery and they think, 'I wonder what would happen if I just stuck my finger in there a little bit.' I know that sounds crazy. But you have to realize that farmers don't have whole lot of sense in these matters because they feel no pain. It's true. Every day in the Des Moines Register you can find a story about a farmer who has inadvertently torn off an arm and then calmly walked six miles into the nearest town to have it sewn back on. The stories always say, 'Jones, clutching his severed limb, told his physician, 'I seem to have cut my durn arm off, Doc.' It's never: 'Jones, spurting blood, jumped around hysterically for twenty minutes, fell into a swoon and then tried to run in four directions at once,' which is how it would be with you or me."

    This stuff cracks me up. Maybe it's because I grew up in Iowa too.

    From an American's point of view, I was at times amazed by the important landmarks Bryson missed seeing or failed to appreciate. He drove by Monticello, for heaven's sake! In Springfield, Illinois, he "drove around a little bit, but finding nothing worth stopping for" he left -- Springfield, Illinois -- the home of Abraham Lincoln and his burial place! He passed up touring the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, because it cost too much! He called Gettysburg a flat field -- a battlefield of such varied topography as to make one wonder whether Bryson actually visited it! He missed Lake Tahoe! He also missed seeing Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine. Nor did he have any lobster along the Maine coast. Yet he felt informed enough to conclude that there was nothing special about Maine. Hurrumph!

    These failings may be forgiven though, because he has lived away from the United States for a long time. And, to be fair, he traveled far and wide and saw many wonderful places. From his well-written depictions, I've regained a desire to see places in the United States I haven't visited yet, including Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mackinaw Island, Michigan.

    Overall, I enjoyed the book and enjoyed many laughs in reading it, which is why I like reading Bryson's books so much. But he seemed to tire out toward the end of the book and toward the end of his travels. His outlook became more and more jaundiced -- which is not good, when his outlook is generally jaundiced to begin with. Part I is the best part of the book, which focuses on the Midwest and East Coast. Part II, about Bryson's travels in the West, seems tacked on and unnecessary for the book (except for his description of his drive through the Colorado mountains to Cripple Creek and his depiction of his first view of the Grand Canyon ("The fog parted. It just silently drew back, like a set of theater curtains being opened, and suddenly we saw that we were on the edge of a sheer, giddying drop of at least a thousand feet. 'Jesus!' we said and jumped back, and all along the canyon edge you could hear people saying, 'Jesus!' like a message being passed down a long line. And then for many moments all was silence, except for the tiny fretful shiftings of the snow, because out there in front of us was the most awesome, most silencing sight that exists on earth.")).

    *There is some swearing in the book.

  • Claire
    Dec 19, 2008

    Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person who's noticed the fact that Bill Bryson is a smug bastard who casts a pall of depressing sarcasm over everything he writes about. I mean, I'm all for sarcasm in most cases, but it's as though all of his subjects are cheapened and made despicable by his prose. In The Lost Continent, he turns every small-town inhabitant into an ignorant, obnoxious caricature. The book has virtually nothing to offer, unless you, too, are hell-bent on whining about the const

    Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person who's noticed the fact that Bill Bryson is a smug bastard who casts a pall of depressing sarcasm over everything he writes about. I mean, I'm all for sarcasm in most cases, but it's as though all of his subjects are cheapened and made despicable by his prose. In The Lost Continent, he turns every small-town inhabitant into an ignorant, obnoxious caricature. The book has virtually nothing to offer, unless you, too, are hell-bent on whining about the constant ennui of middle-American travel. If you'd like a travelogue with value and interest, try Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon, who actually has some respect for his fellow human beings.

  • Andrea
    Dec 31, 2008

    I was really excited to read this book, as I love observational memoir-style writing - especially when it deals with travel and cultural habits people keep with food. And at first I thought his observations were snarky, spot-on, and funny. But as the book wore on (like, about 25 pages or so in), I started to become appalled at how really shallow and mean he started to sound: everyone he encountered was disgusting, stupid, or fat - or all three - and the places he visited never measured up to the

    I was really excited to read this book, as I love observational memoir-style writing - especially when it deals with travel and cultural habits people keep with food. And at first I thought his observations were snarky, spot-on, and funny. But as the book wore on (like, about 25 pages or so in), I started to become appalled at how really shallow and mean he started to sound: everyone he encountered was disgusting, stupid, or fat - or all three - and the places he visited never measured up to the ideal he had envisioned. Perhaps his observations would ring true to someone who had just come here - if anything, he captures his disillusionment well. That said, however, his scopes of both exploration and expectation are ridiculously narrow. It all just got so tiresome; and while I performed a forced march to the end of the book, I can't say I felt enamoured with his writing or his perspective.

  • Gary
    Apr 10, 2010

    It's funny how so many Americans begin their reviews of 'The Lost Continent' with statements such as "I loved Bryson's other books but this one is terrible!", all because he treats America the same way as he treats everywhere and everyone else.

    So while many Americans think it's acceptable - hilarious, even - for Bryson to make disparaging-but-witty comments about non-Americans and the places they call home, it is an utter outrage for him to be anything other than completely worshipful with regar

    It's funny how so many Americans begin their reviews of 'The Lost Continent' with statements such as "I loved Bryson's other books but this one is terrible!", all because he treats America the same way as he treats everywhere and everyone else.

    So while many Americans think it's acceptable - hilarious, even - for Bryson to make disparaging-but-witty comments about non-Americans and the places they call home, it is an utter outrage for him to be anything other than completely worshipful with regard to America and Americans.

    The unavoidable, undeniable fact of the matter is that Bill Bryson's 'The Lost Continent' is not only one of his finest works, but one of the best books ever written by anyone in recent times about the USA and Americans.

    It is as funny as anything you'll ever read, as well as being touching, poignant and fascinating. It is the first book I've read since 'Neither Here Nor There' (also by Bryson) that has caused me to think of calling my travel agent.

    America has never been half as interesting as it is in 'The Lost Continent' and Americans ought to be supremely grateful it was written and published.

    Five stars and highly recommended.

  • Zuberino
    Dec 13, 2011

    Bryson does two things very well in this book, besides his trademark humour which is happily a constant in this and every other book he's ever written. He captures the spirit of the land at a very specific time in its recent history: 1987, the high water mark of the Reaganite project. Time and again, he is left demoralized by the mindless affluenza that was the hallmark of American society during the latter half of the 1980s.

    More broadly, Bryson leaves a depressingly accurate description of the

    Bryson does two things very well in this book, besides his trademark humour which is happily a constant in this and every other book he's ever written. He captures the spirit of the land at a very specific time in its recent history: 1987, the high water mark of the Reaganite project. Time and again, he is left demoralized by the mindless affluenza that was the hallmark of American society during the latter half of the 1980s.

    More broadly, Bryson leaves a depressingly accurate description of the tawdriness and vulgarity of America's built environment - a cement desert of motels, burger joints, gas stations, strip malls, freeways and parking lots repeated ad nauseam throughout the Lower 48 - that is painfully recognizable even 25 years later. If you have ever wondered at the wanton debasement that has been visited on the land by its greedy natives, if you have ever been saddened by the pitiless ugliness that surrounds you in America's cities, towns and suburbs, then surely this book is for you.

    Afterwards, read Edward Abbey and Philip Connors to cleanse your soul and to give thanks for the national parks and wildernesses that still do a stalwart job of protecting nature's beauty and grandeur against a hostile population.

    PS This was Bryson's first book. The opening lines - "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." - must constitute one of the great introductions by any writer in contemporary literature.

  • Greg
    Mar 09, 2013

    I was excited to read this book. I've owned it for a few years now, and it's one of those books that I would see on my shelf and I'd think, this is going to be good, I better save it for another day when I guess I deserve to read something good rather than now when I should read something I'm not looking forward to. Or whatever it is that my thought process is about delaying gratification of books that I actually want to read versus a good deal of the books that I end up reading.

    This should have

    I was excited to read this book. I've owned it for a few years now, and it's one of those books that I would see on my shelf and I'd think, this is going to be good, I better save it for another day when I guess I deserve to read something good rather than now when I should read something I'm not looking forward to. Or whatever it is that my thought process is about delaying gratification of books that I actually want to read versus a good deal of the books that I end up reading.

    This should have been in the, why don't you just read this because then you can get it out of your apartment; or hey you have lots of really good unread books, Greg, so why don't you pick one of the mediocre ones that have been collecting dust and read that instead of something you might really like. Or maybe one of the, you are a worthless piece of shit, Greg, and you don't deserve to read anything good, so read this instead.

    It was one of those books.

    But I meant to like it.

    I've only read one other Bill Bryson book, and I loved it. His history of American English, was wonderful. It was informative and witty and sprinkled with all kinds of nerd-tastic little facts and tidbits.

    That's what I was expecting here. A witty and fun look filled with lots of interesting little facts about various small towns in America.

    Instead it was a book about a guy a little younger than me, driving across country, spending most of his time in his car by himself and making some sort of funny and more not-funny at all remarks about America, and stopping at various tourist traps and historical sites where he inevitably grumbles about merchandising, any cost involved, and how bored he is by historical sites (so, um, don't go to them, it's a big fucking country)

    Parts of the book are enjoyable, but too much of it is just snarky little comments that haven't aged too well in the twenty five years since the book was published.

    I have no idea, but it came to me while I was making dinner and thinking about finally writing something about this book, is that the book must have originally been commissioned by an English publisher. Let's send the ex-pat, mid-western chubby guy back to his country with his affected English accent and let him give us some droll commentary on the big lumbering oaf of a country that was once one of our colonies.

    I didn't think of that while reading the book, but it is the only explanation I can come up with for his Balkie-esque

    reaction to things like

    and

    . In the contemporary equivalent it would be like me summing up my evening by letting you know that

    was on TV, which is about doofuses on an island, but not something I would ever watch, but this country just loves doofuses on an island (does anyone watch this show still? I tried to watch an episode a couple of months ago and it confused me. Yet another sign that I'm getting dumber, like bordering on being mentally retarded dumb lately).

    Too much social commentary about the 'current state of America' as seen from the eyes of someone who hasn't lived in the country for quite awhile, but most of it wasn't really that interesting, like it was sort of things that I was very well aware of at the time this book was written and I was about 14 at the time. Cineplexs were painfully small venues to see a movie in, the homogeneity of suburban sprawl was everywhere, historical battle sites weren't really that interesting (especially Gettysburg, which if you want to really have an unfun time go visit in the tail end of winter and walk twenty miles through bleak fields with a fairly unchanging landscape, while having strep throat, that makes the experience that much better, really), the people in horror movies are universally stupid and get killed because of their stupidity, radio sucks and plays the same songs over and over again. These are just a few of the things I'm remembering from the book.

    As the book moves on it gets a little better. Maybe Bryson had some insights. He stops saying stupid shit like, I was driving from Butt Crack, Virginia, though Yokle-ville heading to I'm Gonna Bang my Sister Tonight, West Virginia when I ate a terrible meal at some dinner where good ol' boys were all hanging out. His quest to find the perfect small town seems to disappear, and he stops gripping about the deficiencies of so many places he stops in at not meeting up with his Mayberry ideal (or maybe it's just that the last part of the book is in the West, and you just don't expect that sort of thing there?). He starts to realize that it's outsiders like himself who want this idealized town, with it's quaint pragmatic shops, when the people who live in towns like having conveniences like supermarkets and fast food restaurants, and don't necessarily want to live in a petrified pretty past. Maybe they all just want that quaint little town to be somewhere else, a few towns over where they can go visit on a Sunday, but for the rest of the time they like being able to get stuff easily. Not that I'm saying all that stuff is good or that the convenience of a Wal-Mart, or a road covered in big box stores is good, but I can see how you would like to have those things near by (I come from a town that attempts to be picturesque, and there were (still are?) uproars when the real sprawl of Wal-Mart et al, started, back in the early 90's. I liked voicing my annoyance at these 'awful' stores, too. I liked bashing Barnes and Noble for destroying small bookstores, but you know what the small bookstore in my town was terrible. The small stores in the picturesque downtown were filled with shitty things that catered to an idealized idea of what you would find in a small downtown of a city/town trying to artificially hold on to the past while also kissing up to tourists and parents of college students up for a weekend. I can go and buy a pewter horse with no problem, but if I needed to buy something I actually could use the whole downtown was pretty much worthless, and it's not like that was a big change that came about after the big box stores came in (I originally typed big fox stores, what an awesome idea, giant stores that either sell foxes or are run by foxes, either way I'm totally on board with that idea)).

    I didn't mean to start rambling on, but you know how it is. I guess what I mean to say is that I have mixed feelings about some of the homogeneity of suburban sprawl.

    I don't even remember what I still meant to write.

    I guess I'll wrap it up. Not very informative. The humor is kind of corny, immature and aged poorly. The idea of the trip is sort of weird. Drive for weeks at a time by yourself in a Chevette, while your wife and children are across the pond. I think if he had brought someone along with him the book would have been better. Or at least he'd have interactions with people who weren't mainly waitresses, motel clerks and gas station attendants. One reviewer, a friend of mine I think, said something like, it would have been nice if he actually talked to people in these small towns, instead of just talking to a waitress that might not be the sharpest tool in the shed and then declaring everyone dumb based on that one person. Ok, maybe I'm making up some of what this other person said, and exaggerating a little bit, but that is sort of the tone that much of this book takes.

    I was expecting more.