Audio: BBC: Bill Bryson
Written and read by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is, for anyone just joining us, one of America’s foremost wits of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He made his name principally as a travel writer, but has since turned his hand to etymology, biography (of the likes of Shakespeare), social architecture and history, biology, physics and much more besides.
A fairly ruthless researcher, and never happier than when re-using a cross-referenced factoid, simply for the pleasure of improving the day of his readers, Bryson is a born and raised American, who also embraced the UK’s lifestyle for many years, and so has a significant perspective on both countries. He’s also embarked on frankly, joyously foolhardly voyages, including a walk along the Appalachian trail, and a cross-Australia tour to explore what remains to most Americans at least, an undiscovered country.
The point about all of which is that most of Bryson’s adventures – whether in three dimensions or in research – were either inspired by the offer of a book contract, or later graced with one, so the full, unexpurgated Bryson experience is yours for the taking, either in hard copy or in audiobook.
A word to the wise – Bryson sometimes reads his own work on audiobook, and is sometimes lifted from his pleasantly fuzzy but somewhat soporific delivery by the likes of William Roberts. For my money, I’d go Roberts every time you can – it’s like someone woke up Bryson and gave his sometimes-wiseass writing the inflection and the energy it demands.
Where’s the value-add?
But, that being so, what’s with the BBC Radio Bill Bryson Collection?
Well – along the way to some of his books, Bryson visited people, interviewed them for facts and perspectives, and recorded those interviews. He was also himself subsequently interviewed a fair amount on the often-extraordinary things he discovered, encountered or shaped into adventures along the way.
That’s what the BBC Radio Bill Bryson Collection is. An anthology of documentaries, interviews and the like – essentially, a collection of most of the times Bill Bryson was invited onto BBC Radio.
It is, if you like, an audio companion volume to a long career of writing, and it is therefore by its very nature, pretty uneven in tone – and potentially, in value, depending on how up to date you are with your audio Bryson.
But on the other hand, the programs included here are much more than extended advertisement for pre-existing Bill Bryson books. Bryson absolutely always understands the mission of radio – to add value, to open eyes in wonder, to make people laugh and think and to pass the time faster than they think it should.
In all of those objectives, the BBC Radio Bill Bryson Collection is a triumph. From The Art of Travel, in which Bryson talks about returning to the States after a decade in England and rediscovering it with fresh eyes – as well as identifying the bits of the cultural experience he realized had gone – through Divided by a Common Language and Journeys Into English, which chart etymologies on two continents, trying to establish commonalities and division points between US and UK English, and beyond, Bryson is never anything less than a charming guest and guide.
His wander around Winsdor Great Park in the company of Clare Balding is whimsical, but allows Bryson’s great balancing act perhaps its best venue – an inveterate enthusiast for things, he’s also a reluctantly grumpy old man, and the two parts of his nature blend seamlessly in the episode on the Great Park.
When you listen to his episode of Desert Island Discs, there are no holds barred and the great enthusiast is in full flood – which just occasionally you need him to be, because it’s so clearly a fundamental part of his nature.
His episode of With Great Pleasure shows Bryson in full flood a second time as he selects some of his favourite books, ranging from Evelyn Waugh to the Hardy Boys.
And one of the jewels of this collection is Bryson on Bookclub, where he gets to disuss his own wonderous waltz through the history of science, A Short History of Nearly Everything.
In short, this collection is a audio bottle full of Bill Bryson’s enthusiasms, challenges, investigations and curios, and while you’ll get a lot more out of it once you’ve listened to books like Mother Tongue, A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk In The Woods and Down Under, if this is your first introduction to Bryson, it will absolutely do enough to ignite your curiosity about the work of this soap-voiced, grin-giggle writer and all the various things to which he’s turned his hand – and his unquenchable enthusiasm – over a long career of regular, entertaining writing.