by Joshua H. Liberatore
America is a funny place, let’s be honest. And there’s no better writer to remind us of exactly why and how it is a funny place than the inimitable Bill Bryson. I’d read his Made in America last year and learned a great deal about the peculiarities of American English. Even in that more scholarly exploration, I’d enjoyed his wit, intelligence, and likable prose. So when I picked up I’m a Stranger Here Myself, his charming collection of short essays, I was ready for a reading experience that would juxtapose pleasantly with the heavy, sober themes that make up the lion’s share of my reading. More than ready for something both smart and light, I think I even needed Bryson’s kindly reprieve. I’m a Stranger is the type of book you pick up in a bookstore and read the first 10–15 pages of without trying, which you enjoy immensely, even laughing out loud at spots, but you hesitate to buy it in deference to your backlog of “serious” reading. Or perhaps you buy it as a Father’s Day gift for your dad and sneak in a few more chapters before wrapping it up and signing the card. And then, without planning or calculation, you return to it years later on a lark. At least, that has been my experience with Bryson, and he always rewards my odd loyalty.
I’m a Stranger has an excellent premise, relevant to anyone who has traveled or lived overseas for more than a few months: the resplendent joy and sorrow of rediscovering America after a sizable absence. Originally from Des Moines, Bryson lived, married, and raised four children in England for over 20 years before relocating to Hannover, New Hampshire. His short articles – initially written for a British audience – read as postcards from the visitor we see in ourselves at those precise moments when we feel our own strangeness in the most familiar and intimate settings, the paradox of self-aware belonging. His topics of interest are as varied as America is broad: the national obsession with statistics, the reliable friendliness of service staff, the incompetence of our postal system, our propensity for absurd waste, the special feel of a true classic diner, our consummate hatred of walking even the shortest distances, the immensity of New Hampshire’s forests, the bedazzling abundance of junk food in our grocery stores, the fundamental illegibility of all owner’s manuals, the endless silliness of new gadgetry.
The list goes on and on. Bryson’s range is impressive, and though his main purpose seems bent toward making us laugh, he also leverages keen observations on more serious fare. Some of the pieces in I’m a Stranger focus on the idiosyncrasies of living in a small, New England town, but even these avoid becoming parochial. Writing in an era just before the dawn of personal blogging, Bryson reminds us – and we do need reminding – that making daily analysis of one’s surroundings and milieu need not be banal or exclusionary. This is “occasional” writing, in the sense carried by genre paintings in an earlier age, the stuff of everyday life brought to a level of insight and scrutiny that is neither so specific that it alienates nor so general that it bores. And Bryson is a master at the craft. Not every piece is first-rate, of course, but all have something unusual to offer. Bryson feels a curious mixture of affection, bemusement, and disdain toward American life and culture that is, for this fellow stranger anyway, nothing short of irresistible reading.