After living in Britain for two decades, Bill Bryson recently moved back to the United States with his English wife and four children (he had read somewhere that nearly 3 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens—as he later put it, "it was clear my people needed me"). They were greeted by a new and improved America that boasts microwave pancakes, twenty-four-hour dental-floss hotlines, and the staunch conviction that ice is not a luxury item.
Delivering the brilliant comic musings that are a Bryson hallmark, I'm a Stranger Here Myself recounts his sometimes disconcerting reunion with the land of his birth. The result is a book filled with hysterical scenes of one man's attempt to reacquaint himself with his own country, but it is also an extended if at times bemused love letter to the homeland he has returned to after twenty years away.
About the Author
Hometown:Hanover, New Hampshire
Date of Birth:1951
Place of Birth:Des Moines, Iowa
Education:B.A., Drake University, 1977
Read an Excerpt
One of the pleasures of living in a small, old-fashioned New England town is that it generally includes a small, old-fashioned post office. Ours is particularly agreeable. It's in an attractive Federal-style brick building, confident but not flashy, that looks like a post office ought to. It even smells nice--a combination of gum adhesive and old central heating turned up a little too high.
The counter employees are always cheerful, helpful and efficient, and pleased to give you an extra piece of tape if it looks as if your envelope flap might peel open. Moreover, post offices here by and large deal only with postal matters. They don't concern themselves with pension payments, car tax, TV licenses, lottery tickets, savings accounts, or any of the hundred and one other things that make a visit to any British post office such a popular, all-day event and provide a fulfilling and reliable diversion for chatty people who enjoy nothing so much as a good long hunt in their purses and handbags for exact change. Here there are never any long lines and you are in and out in minutes.
Best of all, once a year every American post office has a Customer Appreciation Day. Ours was yesterday. I had never heard of this engaging custom, but I was taken with it immediately. The employees had hung up banners, put out a long table with a nice checkered cloth, and laid on a generous spread of doughnuts, pastries, and hot coffee--all of it free.
After twenty years in Britain, this seemed a delightfully improbable notion, the idea of a faceless government bureaucracy thanking me and my fellow townspeople for our patronage, but I was impressed and grateful--and, I must say, it was good to be reminded that postal employees are not just mindless automatons who spend their days mangling letters and whimsically sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba but rather are dedicated, highly trained individuals who spend their days mangling letters and sending my royalty checks to a guy in Vermont named Bill Bubba.
Anyway, I was won over utterly. Now I would hate for you to think that my loyalty with respect to postal delivery systems can be cheaply bought with a chocolate twirl doughnut and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, but in fact it can. Much as I admire Britain's Royal Mail, it has never once offered me a morning snack, so I have to tell you that as I strolled home from my errand, wiping crumbs from my face, my thoughts toward American life in general and the U.S. Postal Service in particular were pretty incomparably favorable.
But, as nearly always with government services, it couldn't last. When I got home, the day's mail was on the mat. There among the usual copious invitations to acquire new credit cards, save a rain forest, become a life member of the National Incontinence Foundation, add my name (for a small fee) to the Who's Who of People Named Bill in New England, help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign, and the scores of other unsought inducements, special offers, and solicitations that arrive each day at every American home--well, there among this mass was a forlorn and mangled letter that I had sent forty-one days earlier to a friend in California care of his place of employment and that was now being returned to me marked "Insufficient Address--Get Real and Try Again" or words to that effect.
At the sight of this I issued a small, despairing sigh, and not merely because I had just sold the U.S. Postal Service my soul for a doughnut. It happens that I had recently read an article on wordplay in the Smithsonian magazine in which the author asserted that some puckish soul had once sent a letter addressed, with playful ambiguity, to
and it had gotten there after the postal authorities had worked out that it was to be read as "John Underhill, Andover, Mass." (Get it?)
It's a nice story, and I would truly like to believe it, but the fate of my letter to California seemed to suggest a need for caution with regard to the postal service and its sleuthing abilities. The problem with my letter was that I had addressed it to my friend merely "c/o Black Oak Books, Berkeley, California," without a street name or number because I didn't know either. I appreciate that that is not a complete address, but it is a lot more explicit than "Hill John Mass" and anyway Black Oak Books is a Berkeley institution. Anyone who knows the city--and I had assumed in my quaintly naive way that that would include Berkeley postal authorities--would know Black Oak Books. But evidently not. (Goodness knows, incidentally, what my letter had been doing in California for nearly six weeks, though it came back with a nice tan and an urge to get in touch with its inner feelings.)
Now just to give this plaintive tale a little heartwarming perspective, let me tell you that not long before I departed from England, the Royal Mail had brought me, within forty-eight hours of its posting in London, a letter addressed to "Bill Bryson, Writer, Yorkshire Dales," which is a pretty impressive bit of sleuthing. (And never mind that the correspondent was a trifle off his head.)
So here I am, my affections torn between a postal service that never feeds me but can tackle a challenge and one that gives me free tape and prompt service but won't help me out when I can't remember a street name. The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there is nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights to take away from a morning's outing, but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I'm happy.
Now if you will excuse me I have to drive to Vermont and collect some mail from a Mr. Bubba.
(Some months after this piece was written, I received a letter from England addressed to "Mr. Bill Bryson, Author of 'A Walk in the Woods,' Lives Somewhere in New Hampshire, America." It arrived without comment or emendation just five days after it was mailed. My congratulations to the U.S. Postal Service for an unassailable triumph.)
Table of Contents
|5.||Well, Doctor, I Was Just Trying to Lie Down||17|
|6.||Rule Number 1: Follow All Rules||20|
|7.||Take Mc Out to the Ballpark||24|
|9.||A Visit to the Barbershop||31|
|10.||On the Hotline||35|
|14.||The Numbers Game||51|
|16.||How to Have Fun at Home||59|
|17.||Tales of the North Woods||63|
|18.||The Cupholder Revolution||69|
|21.||Why Everyone Is Worried||81|
|22.||The Risk Factor||85|
|23.||The War on Drugs||89|
|26.||Why No One Walks||101|
|28.||Snoopers at Work||109|
|29.||Lost at the Movies||113|
|30.||Gardening with My Wife||117|
|32.||A Day at the Seaside||125|
|33.||On Losing a Son||129|
|35.||Fall in New England||138|
|36.||The Best American Holiday||142|
|37.||Deck the Halls||146|
|38.||Fun in the Snow||151|
|39.||The Mysteries of Christmas||155|
|40.||Life in a Cold Climate||159|
|41.||Hail to the Chief||163|
|42.||Lost in Cyberland||167|
|43.||Your Tax Form Explained||171|
|45.||The Waste Generation||179|
|46.||A Slight Inconvenience||185|
|47.||At the Drive-In||189|
|48.||Drowning in Red Tape||194|
|50.||So Sue Me||202|
|51.||The Great Indoors||206|
|53.||In Praise of Diners||214|
|55.||The Fat of the Land||222|
|56.||Your New Computer||226|
|57.||How to Rent a Car||231|
|59.||The Flying Nightmare||239|
|61.||At a Loss||248|
|63.||Rules for Living||256|
|66.||Last Night on the Titanic||269|
|69.||An Address to the Graduating Class of Kimball Union Academy, Meriden, New Hampshire||281|
|70.||Coming Home: Part II||285|
What People are Saying About This
On Tuesday, May 25th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Bill Bryson to discuss I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF.
Moderator: Welcome, Bill Bryson! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening to discuss your new book, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF. How are you tonight?
Bill Bryson: I'm very well, thank you, and very pleased to be here.
John from East Village, NYC: Hi, Bill Bryson. I was just wondering: Were you writing these essays at the same time you were writing A WALK IN THE WOODS? Do your experiences on the Appalachian Trail figure into I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF anywhere? Just curious. I'm a big fan. Can't wait to read it.
Bill Bryson: First, thanks for the compliment. Much appreciated. And second, the columns followed almost immediately upon the completion of the hiking.
Penney from New Hampshire: The essays in this book were originally intended for a British audience, and I'm sure it has something to do with how you were able to make the minutia of American life so entertaining. Would you have written these essays any differently if it they were intended for an American audience? Would they have ever been written at all?
Bill Bryson: No, I probably wouldn't have written them any differently. Even though they were written for a British audience in the first instance, I think the observations I make apply universally. Obviously, I was writing about American things, because that was the assignment, but I could have made the same points about any modern culture.
Helen Katz from Salt Lake City, UT: Do the British understand your sense of humor? Does [Stephen] Katz understand your sense of humor? Why doesn't anyone understand my sense of humor? Oh, sorry, that's another Q&A group! Please come visit "behind the Zion curtain" (that's Utah, for you Gentiles)!
Bill Bryson: Yes, the British do seem to understand my sense of humor, bless them. And Stephen Katz (not his real name, but very much a real person) seemed to appreciate the humor very much as well. His words to me, when he read the book, were: "Aw, Bryson, it's all bullsh**, but it's very funny."
Lucy Frost from Cocoa, FL: Mr. Bryson, I've enjoyed all your books, but THE LOST CONTINENT is still my favorite. Are there any other places here in the U.S. you might be writing a book about in the future? Thank you.
Bill Bryson: I would love to write about lots of places in America. There are still many places I haven't been to. But my big project this year is writing a book about Australia, so I am afraid America will have to wait.
Jen from Jersey City, NJ: I love your travel and nonfiction books, and I just love your writing style. But have you ever considered or attempted writing a novel? Do you think you ever will?
Bill Bryson: The main thing that appeals to me about a novel would be not having to leave home. But I have never thought seriously about writing one -- at least not yet.
Laura from Indiana: Hi, Mr. Bryson. I enjoyed reading I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF very much. Has your friend Simon talked you into any more projects? By the way, I know where a Burma Shave sign is!
Bill Bryson: I've given Simon an agreement in principle to write some more stuff for him next year. Where's the Burma Shave sign? I'd love to see it.
Joy Mansinha from firstname.lastname@example.org: Are you planning to write a book after traveling in India? I can't wait to read it. More than that, I would love to be your traveling companion on this trip! I loved your book NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, especially since I was married to a Swiss and lived in CH and Germany for many years. That book helped me to survive a very lonely Christmas in Ottawa. If you are planning to be in NYC, I would love to meet you to have a coffee! By the way, I have been in Hanover; it reminded very much of the country I grew up in, Canada.
Bill Bryson: I'm afraid I have no plans, at this stage, to be in India any time soon, but I would love very much to go one day. Thank you very much for the kind words. I'm glad you found my book useful.
Patti from Cobb County, GA: For all the writing you do about folks you meet during trips, has it become a problem that these people you now meet know you and your writing and sort of "ham it up" for you? Thanks!
Bill Bryson: No, thank goodness. The only times I've been recognized were a couple of occasions recently in Australia by British vacationers. I made a television series in the UK last year, and they recognized me from that. But otherwise, I've never been recognized by anyone, anywhere, while gathering material for a book.
Laura from email@example.com: How has your success changed your life?
Bill Bryson: It made it much, much busier!
Prion8 from Los Angeles: Hi, Bill. How are you? I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed A WALK IN THE WOODS. Keep them coming.
Bill Bryson: Thank you very much. I can't afford to stop -- I've got two kids in college!
Blake Wintory from Fayetteville, AR: Mr. Bryson, how is I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF different from THE LOST CONTINENT?
Bill Bryson: In a lot of ways. For one thing, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF is made up of a lot of short, self-contained essays. THE LOST CONTINENT, on the other hand, was a single narrative. Also, I've mellowed considerably!
Tim from Hartford, CT: What are your three favorite cities in the world? Just a curious fan...
Bill Bryson: That's a tough one, but off the top of my head, I would say London, New York, and Sydney.
Bubba from Vermont: You grew up in America, so I imagine your early writing style originated here. But having spent so much time abroad, would you say your writing style has become British? Now that you're back here, how would you describe it?
Bill Bryson: I'm not consciously aware of any particular geographical leanings in my writing, but obviously I must have been influenced by the fact that I've spent roughly one half of my life in America and one half in Britain.
Moderator: Do you have any books you've been saving up to read this summer?
Bill Bryson: RESURRECTION DAY by Brendan DuBois. I haven't even looked at it yet, but somebody told me it's really, really good. I'm just about to read THE SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin. And THE FATAL SHORE by Robert Hughes again as research for my Australia book.
Stan from New York: Hi, Mr. Bryson, I'm a big fan of your work and would like to ask if you feel that you've ever gone too far with your humor -- if you think you've ever crossed the line from humorous to hurtful. I'm thinking specifically of the passage in NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND where you rather ridicule a family of fat people who are dining at a table near you. I have to admit that I found that passage a bit over the top and even a bit malicious, compared to most of your work, and I wonder if that passage or anything else you've written ever caused you any regret.
Bill Bryson: The danger with humor is that you always run the risk of pushing it too far. I'm sure I've done that lots of times, possibly even with the family you refer to (but they did take the last dessert.
Adam from Bedford, NH: I live in New Hampshire myself and was wondering if you get any inspiration from the state.
Bill Bryson: As a matter of fact, I do. Sometimes when things aren't going well, I'll go for a walk in the woods near where we live, and that always helps.
Keith Lawson from Cyprus: Bill, thanks for excellent reads, but where do you get your route directions from? Everybody knows that neither the A30/A303 nor the A361 should feature on any route from Surrey to Cornwall...it is far better to go by..... P.S. I may be living in Cyprus, but I'm from another small island.
Bill Bryson: [laughs] Can you repeat that in much more detail?
Laura from Indiana: Hi again. The Burma Shave sign is by a little town in Indiana. I thought it was funny, so I took some pictures.
Bill Bryson: Thank you, but I could do with a tiny bit more guidance.
Jill McDermott from Florida: Who are your favorite British contemporary authors? American contemporaries? How do our current tastes differ?
Bill Bryson: I don't get to read a lot for pleasure, because so much of the reading I do is connected with work. But bearing that in mind, among British authors, I particularly enjoy reading Redmond O'Hanlon, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes. Among American writers, I enjoy Anne Tyler, Cormac McCarthy, and John Irving. But my favorite of all these days is the Irishman Patrick O'Brian.
Philip from Denver, CO: Why do you think so many Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens? And more importantly, do you believe these accounts to be true?
Bill Bryson: [laughs] I have no idea, and no.
Ty Pennington from Indiana: When you were returning to America, did you consider settling anywhere other than where you live right now?
Bill Bryson: Yes, we thought about lots of possibilities and decided more or less arbitrarily on New England, because it's a nice region, it's a beautiful area, it has a good choice of attractive communities, and because we decided that we wanted four seasons.
Moderator: Thank you, Bill Bryson! Best of luck with your new book, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF. Before you leave, do you have any closing comments for the online audience?
Bill Bryson: Thank you very much for tuning in and for reading my books. It's been a pleasure.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Every book I read by Bill Bryson is worth every penny I spend on it. This book is no exception. After his 20 year hiatuse from residing in the US, Bill Bryson's adventure to American normalsy makes you think about your own home town and why it's unique. This book is great for anyone who wants to begin reading and get educated and be amused in the process to the experienced reader looking for a comedic break from the other reads out there. As awlays with Bill Bryson's books, ENJOY!
I have bought this book 13 times! Three for myself (two copies taken unabashedly), 9 as gifts. Bill Bryson is by far the best living author, ever. He is the answer to the question 'If you could have lunch with any living author who would it be?'. He is uncomparable. This book is hysterical! One of the few books on the planet that will make you laugh out loud, alone, while you're reading it. It will make you laugh out loud in public and make other people look at you strangely and in a perplexing manner. His use of the English vocabulary is stunning. I love a book that you must look up the definition to a word because you've never heard it before. That's how brilliant and eloquent he is. I've read them all, and they're all amazing, but this is my favorite. If you like this read them all, from the travel to the science to the linguistics.
Mr. Bryson, a Yankee from the state of Iowa, gives his observations of life in the U.S.A as he sees it after having lived abroad for over two decades. His satire on computers,taxes,exercise habits, and other Americanisms, is written with a good blend of humor and sarcasm. Anyone can appreciate this laugh-aloud book.
Bill Bryson manages to make me laugh on every page with his wry descriptions of everyday life in America. This is told via newspaper columns he has written and really makes me think about things I take for granted as well as making me love it all over again.
I ABSOLUTELY, love this book. It is laugh out loud fun.
This book is the US edition of the book published elsewhere as 'Notes from a Big Country'. Although the US edition has lost some of the strengths of the original, it also retains most of its enjoyable content. Bryson makes insightful and witty observations about American culture. Based on his weekly newspaper columns for an English newspaper, Bryson describes life in America. Readers are guaranteed to laugh out loud, but at the same time the humour delivers much food for thought about North American culture. For North Americans who are perhaps guilty at times of arrogance, such self-examination and a critical close look at ourselves is of great benefit. This is an entertaining as well as thought provoking read.
I thought this book was very funny. None of the columns is terribly long, but all of them show the ridiculous side of modern life in the United States. I especially enjoyed Bryson's attempts to explain baseball.
I'm not usually a fan of collected essays, mostly because, like this one, you suffer through more bad than celebrate good. Still, if you're a fan of Bryson's humor, you won't want to miss this one.
This book was very cute! I really enjoyed reading about the eccentricities of American culture, especially after living in England for twenty years. A very endearing read! I've listened to it a few times on my iTunes.
Amusing. As i spent quite a bit of time overseas myself and felt the cultural shock when first moving back to my native country.
Bryson's weakest book, but that is a fairly high standard so you'll probably like it if you enjoy his sense of humor. This one is a collection of essays to British readers about his experiences returning to live in the US with his family. The anti-everything-American thing gets a bit tiring.
Engaging enough, but many of the essays have a "I need to turn in a column tomorrow!" feel. Bryson is likeable enough to pull it off.
Another hysterically funny, yet poignant observation of America.
A nice, light read; easy to get into, easy to read in small stages. Very true observations of American culture, and (as usual) he makes some points I hadn't ever stopped to think about.Bryson is one of my very favorite authors, and I enjoyed this book very much. All that said, this is not his very best book. Granted, this is due (almost entirely) to the difficulties of coming up with a column every week for two years...some of them work, some of them don't, and when they are read in just a few short sittings the reader gets the sense of repeated conent. But if this is one of your first forays into Bryson, I hope you won't let this book dissuade you from reading his other excellent publications.
I collection of newspaper columns he wrote for a few years after coming back to the United States after living in England for 20 years.He is as funny as ever and he is simply a great writer.
My husband and I listened to this book on cd while taking a road-trip from Chicago to the Smoky Mountains. It was very entertaining and had us laughing so hard at times we were crying. Hearing the author read the book in his dry candor, definitely enhanced the experience.
A collection of articles Bryson wrote about American places and culture upon his return from living in the UK. Easily the weakest of Bryson's books, his humor and insight seem to have taken some time to catch up with the rest of him.
Hilarious, passionate, enticing, mind-boggling, and thought-provoking stuff! Love the short but thorough pieces in the novel. Bryson is a knockout travel writer and this book definitely shows the reader the ever-busy brain of that writer!
Quick, funny essays about everyday life are harder to write than you might think. I marvel at them and take them apart the way you might take an old radio apart just to see if you can figure out how to put it back together.
This book is comprised of a short column that Bill Bryson wrote for a British newspaper after he moved to Hanover, New Hampshire in the late 1990s. Though a few of the essays (e.g., those related to technology) are a bit dated, overall the columns were entertaining enough to keep me interested through a long plane flight. I was snickering often enough to make the people sitting next to me on the plane think I was extremely strange. Perfect for traveling as each essay is only a few pages long.
Bryson's collection of columns upon returning home to America after twenty years living in Britain. There is some very funny stuff here. Written for an audience in the UK, Bryson shares his observations on anything from American junk breakfast food, to the wonder of New England winters. Much fun.
Apparently, this is taken from a column Bill was writing when he returned from England (where he was living for 20 years of his adult life) back to his home country of America.For the most part the book's chapters (each about 3 and a half pages) muse on about the culture shock of how much things have changed since his youth, and how different things are in comparison to the way of the Britons. Of course, this is done with great humorous jest and observation (and frustration).Byson's actual humor is nearly silly, self-deprecating, and incredibly situational. No matter what his subject is, I will find myself emitting a series of laughs; from snickering giggles to donkey-like guffaws.A few times Bryson strays from the subject from which the book presents itself from its own synopsis; especially the chapters regarding the Titanic's last night (though, here he is picking on the British) and his commencement speech he gives to a college.But, gosh, I do love a good, witty observation of culture shock, and this book is plenty stocked.
I just picked one of Bryson's books to list. All of his books are a hoot.
Very funny. I would read anything Bill Bryson writes. A biting look at modern America from a long-time ex-pat.
This book is a collection of newspaper columns Bill Bryson wrote for a publication in the UK soon after he moved back to the US. There are many humorous passages and laugh-out-loud moments. The super-short chapters make it easy to put down. . . but also easy to pick up again.