Bill Bryson is not only a beloved and bestselling writer, he’s the dearest man you’ll ever meet, with a Santa-esque twinkle in his eye and a kind word for everyone. I met up with him at Book Expo America, where we talked about the future of physical books, his fears for print journalism, and his new book.
Did you ever consider writing a baseball book?
I always wanted to do a baseball book; I love baseball. The problem is that a very large part of my following is in non-baseball playing countries. So I have to factor that in. And I’ve always been keenly fascinated with Babe Ruth as a person. You don’t have to know anything about baseball to respond to Babe Ruth because he’s just this magnificent human being. And a really good story because he was this kid who grew up essentially as an orphan, you know, had a tough life, and then he became the most successful baseball player ever. But he was also a really good guy. He was good to kids and he was very, very accommodating to his fans. If you look at photographs, he’s always surrounded by hundreds of kids, and they obviously loved him and he loved them. You don’t have to know baseball to respond to that. So I thought Babe Ruth would be a good way for me into baseball.
I did realize that Lindberg was at the same time. I thought, “That’s got to make for an interesting story, the fact that you’ve got these two things happening.” And what I found—to my complete surprise—was there were all these other things happening at the same time in the summer of ‘27. Things like the Great Mississippi Flood and the execution of Sacco-Vanzetti, Al Capone and Prohibition. There’s lots and lots of books on all of those things individually but nobody’s ever seen them as part of a package. What I found was that all these things interlinked in interesting ways, and influenced each other in ways that hadn’t been noticed before.
Did you discover anything that surprised you about the way Americans lived their daily lives in 1927?
A lot of it was just appealingly simple. It’s easy to romanticize these things, and you have to stop and remind yourself that they didn’t have antibiotics, for one thing. Quite a few people in the book died who wouldn’t have died now. Calvin Coolidge’s son, he got a blister on his toe and it became infected and he died. He was sixteen years old. It was a really tragic death and it completely influenced Calvin Coolidge, he became completely depressed—as he had every right to be—by the fact that his son had died. And the infection would’ve been dealt with antibiotics now. You have to remember that they put up with a lot of things. But at the same time, it was a simpler and more appealing world in a lot of ways. The country, there were only 40% as many people, so it was a much, much emptier place. And there were almost no long-distance highways, so everywhere you went, you went by train. The fact that if you’re growing up in the Midwest, New York is two or three days away—that’s as fast as you could possibly get there—that influenced everything, the whole pace of life.
That’s interesting. Whenever people say, “Oh, I was meant to be born in the Roaring 20s,” I always think, “Do you enjoy feminism?”
Yeah, see, there’s lots of things like that. I mean, racism was just awful. That was a surprise to me. I knew that blacks were treated poorly in the South, but I didn’t realize that, for instance, the New Yorker would use the word “nigger” in cartoon captions. And you just think, “wow,” I mean, that’s really bad. We mustn’t over-romanticize the period—there was a lot that was bad. But there was a kind of simplicity about it, and the pace of life was much less frenzied and frenetic than it is now, that’s appealing.
Your book is about summer, of course, and I was wondering if you have any particularly strong memories of your boyhood summers.
I think it helped me to recreate in my mind the summer of 1927 because of having grown up in the 50s in the Midwest. I grew up really in the days before air conditioning. So I can remember what it was like to be really hot, for instance, and I can remember what it was like when your barber shop and your local stores weren’t air conditioned, so it was hot when you went in them and they propped the doors open. The difference between being inside and being outside was much less distinct back then. Now, you go inside, and you would never guess you were in the biggest, busiest, noisiest city in America. You go inside in New York, it’s silent—you leave the city, in fact. Back then, in the summertime, like I say in the book, when you went indoors the city came indoors with you because the windows were open and all the noise came in, and I remember that very clearly from my childhood.
Were your days maybe more free than the days of children today?
Absolutely. I mean, kids must have been kidnapped and abused and terrible things must have happened, but we just weren’t aware of it. And so much of how you approach life is just perception—if you don’t know there’s a risk, don’t feel there’s a risk, then you feel perfectly safe. And if you feel there’s a risk, than you’re worried. We live in an age in which we worry. I’m sure the risk itself hasn’t changed very much—it’s probably just as safe to be in the streets in Des Moines, Iowa, now as it was when I was a kid. But the perception is that there’s danger out there, there’s crazy people who could snatch you.
Is there anything from your childhood that you wish we could replicate for your own children that maybe technology ruled out?
We had a lot less in the way of distractions and diversions. When I was ten years old and it was a summer day, you got up and you went outside because that was the only place you went looking for friends and things to do. And it’s a terrible cliché that you had to make your own fun, but you did. I think it’s a shame that kids have lost a lot of that. One thing that’s striking to me now when I travel around—not just in America but Britain, anywhere—if you go through residential areas, you don’t see kids out playing the way you used to. And I think that’s a shame. It’s got to be much less healthy, that kids are just indoors all the time. Whereas when I was kid, in warm weather you went indoors to eat and sleep—the rest of the time you were outside.
Has the proliferation of handheld devices and cat videos affected your writing life in any way?
In some ways. To me, the greatest invention of my lifetime is the laptop computer and the fact that I can be working on a book and be in an airport lounge, in a hotel room, and continue working; I fire up my laptop and I’m in exactly the same place I was when I left home—that, to me, is a miracle. So I’m not against new technology—it’s fabulous, it makes all the difference in the world. In the old days, when I first started out, it was on typewriters and those were very limited. You couldn’t ype on an airplane because you’d be disturbing the people around you in most public places. Whereas now, anywhere, you can open up a laptop and be working away.
So you’re not a writer who needs to be in the same surroundings, the same room to concentrate? You can dive in.
No, luckily I don’t need that at all. Because I grew up in a newspaper, worked in a newspaper office, I’ve always been pretty good at turning out distractions and background noises. I can focus.
Speaking of newspapers, do you feel optimistic about the future of journalism?
I wish I did. No, I think it’s really scary. One of the pleasures for me of being in New York is getting a physical copy of the New York Times. I like going out to breakfast and actually carrying a newspaper with me and reading it. I know I could read it on screen, but to me it isn’t quite the same experience. So I think it’s worrisome that there are big cities in America that may not have a daily newspaper within the next few years. That’s a terrible thing. You really need a good local newspaper to keep an eye on your local politicians and businesses and developments and things. These papers in Cleveland and New Orleans going to three-day-a-week productions, it’s just so tragic.
What about publishing? Do you fear for the future of physical books, or do you feel that people will still treasure them as objects?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean, I have absolutely nothing against digital books. But I grew up in a world of physical books, so I’m more comfortable with them. And certainly with things like research, I like to go to a library and take physical objects down off shelves. I can find my way around that world a lot better. Whereas my 22-year-old son is fantastic at doing research on screens. He can find his way around the digital world really quickly. And in a lot of ways there’s no comparison. Because the digital world means that he’ll be able to go to libraries all over the planet, whereas I’m physically stuck in one particular library and have to deal with just the books they have there. But I do like books as physical objects and I would hate to be in a world in which we didn’t have them. What I would really like, I think would be wonderful, if every time you bought a book you got the right to have it digitally.
Yes! I would pay 5 more dollars for that privilege!
Exactly! So would I, because I like to have a book that I can put on a shelf and turn to physically. But also, if I’m traveling, it would be great to be able to put 10 books on a tablet of some kind—a NOOK or whatever. So I’m perfectly amenable to the idea, but I sort of feel if I’ve spent 15 or 20 bucks on a book, I don’t want it to just exist as computer code.
I couldn’t cope if I wasn’t surrounded by books in my apartment—just their physical presence is so comforting.
I agree entirely. I mean, the example I always cite is I have a subscription to the Economist Magazine, and that means that I get a physical copy in the mail every week. But also I’m entitled to read it online; that comes as part of the package and that’s great. So now when I’m away from home, if I want I can get my little tablet out, or on my laptop and I can read this week’s issue.
You’ve written about some of America’s foibles and shortcomings, and I was wondering if you could give us some advice about how to be better Americans. What simple steps could we take?
Oh gosh! I don’t know. That’s a huge question. I’m really at a complete loss. Nothing. I think I have an unusual perspective on this in that I am an American but I live overseas, so I see America from a slightly different perspective. And I think the thing that I have come to appreciate about America, seriously appreciate about America, is that the world is very lucky to have America. It’s got to be the first time in the whole history of the planet that a country has been the dominant force in the world and it has actually been a force for good. I mean, think if it would have been the Soviet Union, if it had been the dominant, it would have changed the world. They would have compelled people to live in a certain way. Or, the Roman Empire, you had to become Roman. America really deserves more credit. It kind of runs the planet but it does it in a really benign and open-minded way. And I think that’s something that we never quite give ourselves enough credit for. And you really see it when you go over and live abroad, you realize that most of what America does is for the good. Very little of what America does is actually bad, and I don’t think it ever does anything anywhere that is intentionally bad. I mean, sometimes we make mistakes and bad judgments and kind of back the wrong regimes and things, but by and large what America does is really good. It kind of defends democracy and capitalism and free trade and all of those things and I think the world is a much better place because of that.
I was looking at an online forum and an English woman said, “You’re not having Bill Bryson back; he’s ours now!”
I’m in a strange position because I am American—there’s no getting away from it, there’s no escaping it, even if I wanted to. I am an American; it’s my defining characteristic. I was born and brought up in this country. But I do live in another country and I feel a great, strong admiration for and loyalty to Britain. But luckily those two things work very comfortably together. If there was another World War, we’d almost certainly be on the same side again. And it doesn’t matter really which. So I feel as if I belong to both places. I live in England now, so my more immediate interests are there, but, you know, I still feel very strongly about what happens in America. When I come back here I feel as if I’m at home. It’s a lot like when I got to Iowa, that’s really home, I come from Iowa, I am Iowan. That’s where my real patriotism is. That’s kind of the fundamental core of my being, is being from Iowa, and then from the Midwest, and then from America more generally. But I don’t live in Iowa; I haven’t lived there for 40 years, and I will never live there again, but that doesn’t reduce my affections for the place. It’s the same way about America: even though I don’t live here anymore, I still feel the same sort of attachment.
When you go back to Iowa, does anyone accuse you of having a British accent?
Yeah. And I wish I could adjust my voice, but it’s just what’s happened to me. It’s because I’ve lived abroad for a long time, and my wife is English and my kids all have English accents and every voice I hear is English. I’ve never intentionally changed my accent at all. I think a lot of is just a kind of rhythm of speech, the way you put emphasis on words, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I find myself picking up Southern accents within five minutes of talking to Southern people.
Some people are very, very susceptible to it, and I guess I’m one of those.
Are there any American locutions that you miss using? I can’t imagine you get to say “fanny pack” very much.
No, I don’t get to say that very much. It’s more in the other direction—I feel kind of fraudulent if I use British expressions. I mean, I never say “blimey” or anything like that. The thing I always think of is I can wear a baseball cap, I am entitled to wear a baseball cap, I am genetically pre-disposed to wear a baseball cap, whereas most English people look wrong in a baseball cap.
I hope it’s a Red Sox cap still. I’m from Boston, so I need to check that your loyalties are still in the right place.
Yeah, it’s a Red Sox cap.
But yes, there are certain things that you really have to be an American—Canadians, too, and some people from Central America can wear baseball caps—but most other people really shouldn’t. I don’t know why. And conversely, there are things that are British that I wouldn’t wear because I’m an American.
What could you not wear?
A kilt, for one thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.