The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

by Bill Bryson


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The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson

An unsparing and hilarious account of one man's rediscovery of America and his search for the perfect small town.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060920081
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/15/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 144,846
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Bill Bryson's bestselling books include One Summer, A Short History of Nearly Everything, At Home, A Walk in the Woods, Neither Here nor There, Made in America, and The Mother Tongue. He lives in England with his wife.


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to. When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can't wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.

Hardly anyone ever leaves. This is because Des Moines is the most powerful hypnotic known to man. Outside town there is a big sign that says, WELCOME TO DES MOINES. THIS IS WHAT DEATH IS LIKE. There isn't really. I just made that up. But the place does get a grip on you. People who have nothing to do with Des Moines drive in off the interstate, looking for gas or hamburgers, and stay forever. There's a New Jersey couple up the street from my parents' house whom you see wandering around from time to time looking faintly puzzled but strangely serene. Everybody in Des Moines is strangely serene.

The only person I ever knew in Des Moines who wasn't serene was Mr. Piper. Mr. Piper was my parents' neighbor, a leering, cherry-faced idiot who was forever getting drunk and crashing his car into telephone poles. Everywhere you went you encountered telephone poles and road signs leaning dangerously in testimony to Mr. Piper's driving habits. He distributed them all over the west side of town rather in the way dogs mark trees. Mr. Piper was the nearest possible human equivalent to Fred Flintstone, but less charming. He was a Shrinerand a Republican — a Nixon Republican — and he appeared to feel he had a mission in life to spread offense. His favorite pastime, apart from getting drunk and crashing his car, was to get drunk and insult the neighbors, particularly us because we were Democrats, though he was prepared to insult Republicans when we weren't available.

Eventually, I grew up and moved to England. This irritated Mr. Piper almost beyond measure. It was worse than being a Democrat. Whenever I was in town, Mr. Piper would come over and chide me. "I don't know what you're doing over there with all those Limeys," he would say provocatively. "They're not clean people."

"Mr. Piper, you don't know what you're talking about," I would reply in my affected British accent. "You are a cretin." You could talk like that to Mr. Piper because (1) he was a cretin and (2) he never listened to anything that was said to him.

"Bobbi and I went over to London two years ago and our hotel room didn't even have a bathroom in it," Mr. Piper would go on. "If you wanted to take a leak in the middle of the night you had to walk about a mile down the hallway. That isn't a clean way to live."

"Mr. Piper, the English are paragons of cleanliness. It is a well-known fact that they use more soap per capita than anyone else in Europe."

Mr. Piper would snort derisively at this. "That doesn't mean diddly-squat, boy, just because they're cleaner than a bunch of Krauts and Eye-ties. My God, a dog's cleaner than a bunch of Krauts and Eye-ties. And I'll tell you something else: If his daddy hadn't bought Illinois for him, John F. Kennedy would never have been elected president."

I had lived around Mr. Piper long enough not to be thrown by this abrupt change of tack. The theft of the 1960 presidential election was a longstanding plaint of his, one that he brought into the conversation every ten or twelve minutes regardless of the prevailing drift of the discussion. In 1963, during Kennedy's funeral, someone in the Waveland Tap punched Mr. Piper in the nose for making that remark. Mr. Piper was so furious that he went straight out and crashed his car into a telephone pole. Mr. Piper is dead now, which is of course one thing that Des Moines prepares you for.

When I was growing up I used to think that the best thing about coming from Des Moines was that it meant you didn't come from anywhere else in Iowa. By Iowa standards, Des Moines is a mecca of cosmopolitanism, a dynamic hub of wealth and education, Where people wear three-piece suits and dark socks, often simultaneously. During the annual state high-school basketball tournament, when the hayseeds from out in the state would flood into the city for a week, we used to accost them downtown and snidely offer to show them how to ride an escalator or negotiate a revolving door. This wasn't always so far from reality. My friend Stan, when he was about sixteen, had to go and stay with his cousin in some remote, dusty hamlet called Dog Water or Dunceville or some such improbable spot — the kind of place where if a dog gets run over by a truck everybody goes out to have a look at it. By the second week, delirious with boredom, Stan insisted that he and his cousin drive the fifty miles into the county town, Hooterville, and find something to do. They went bowling at an alley with warped lanes and chipped balls and afterwards had a chocolate soda and looked at a Playboy in a drugstore, and on the way home the cousin sighed with immense satisfaction and said, "Gee thanks, Stan. That was the best time I ever had in my whole life!" It's true.

I had to drive to Minneapolis once, and I went on a back road just to see the country. But there was nothing to see...

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Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's amusing to me that so many readers have enjoyed Bryson's humor at the expense of other nations, and yet are quite indignant when he turns his attention to the U.S. His observations are no more or less true here than they were in other books. The U.S. has much to recommend it, but it also has it's share of flaws and foibles which Bryson points out using his trademark wit and tongue-in-cheek criticism.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not only was this book mean spirited, as has bee noted already, I have issues as to whether Bryson had even been in most of these places. I have lived in Iowa, Illinois, Nevada, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Places such as Mount Pleasant and Keokuk, Iowa, were grossly misrepresented by Bryson. Carbondale, Illinois, is not just a strip of hotels and fast food as he says. He doen't seem to grasp the highway concept. The town does not resat on the highway, those are just facilities for the people who do wish to go into town. It is a college town for God's sake, you think he woul have found that out. Worst of all, the road he travels between Columbus and Tupelo, Mississippi, which he describes as being covered with run down shacks with black people sitting on the porch is false. I have driven that road many times in my life, from the time before he wrote this book to last week, and it just isn't there. Nobody lives on that road or has in my lifetime. It is tree lined and nice and enjoyable. There are many other gross minrepresentations and out and out lies in this book. Bryson is obviously just pandering to what people expect out of these places instead of actually going there and reporting the truth himself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gee whiz. I was really enjoying this book, and couldn't wait to get back to the last two chapters.Then I read the customer reviews here, and I was wondering if I missed something. I thoroughly enjoyed it and did not want it to end. Granted, Bill is a bit of a Curmudgeon, but, he has a good sense of humor. Take a good look around you next time you travel, and I believe you will agree with his description of most tourists. This is the third Bryson I have read, and I can't wait to read another.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Unlike the many other Bryson books I have loved and laughed and nodded sagely at, I found this book a bit mean spirited, as though an elitist snit was looking down his nose at any and all who didn't measure up to his personal idea of what the world he neglected for 20 years (by choice) of living in England should choose to evolve. Obviously, it hadn't evolved (or DEvolved) as Bryson preferred. A man who writes things like: 'Why is it, I wondered, that old people are always so self-centered and excitable? But I just smiled benignly and stood back, comforted by the thought that soon they would be dead.', ought NOT, repeat NOT, announce his political affiliations with equal parts pride of it, and disdain for the other major party, early on in such a book as this. I really didn't enjoy this read very much. Luckily, it's one of his earlier works. The latter stuff is much, much better.
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KaneH More than 1 year ago
In this book, Bryson is at his grouchy peak as the traveling curmudgeonly commentator winding his way through a clutch of different states on a long road trip to see what America is like after being away for some time. You either roll with the comic exaggeration for effect (reminding one of the style of Robert Benchley), and enjoy the ride, or you flat-out hate the grousing and put-downs of (mostly) small-town backroads places. I took it in good-natured stride. My travels hit a lot of the places he describes, though I have much fonder memories of nearly all of them. Overall, he hits on the differences between regions and states and places to see, while recalling past family road trips. He contrasts the things of the past with how they are now. For a trip down memory lane and across our vast land, I say this is useful and fun, when taken in the right spirit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book. Bryson is always entertaining.
Noonatic More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for a non-fiction book, this is one for you to certainly skip. I haven't been everywhere that he writes about in the book, of course, but I am from Philadelphia originally and know that many of the things he presents as facts are blatantly wrong. It makes me wonder if anything in the book that he says about other parts of the country are correct! Also, even though his sarcasm is meant to be funny a lot of the time it just comes across as hateful. Overall I think the best thing about the book is that it's not too long.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not his best writing. Too dated and didn't catch the reader's interest.
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lindylovesreading More than 1 year ago
I purchased this for my husband! He chuckled through most of this book~ Bill Bryson has done it again! My husband is from the midwest and especially enjoyed Bill travels through the heartland.
Jarnet More than 1 year ago
First and foremost, Bill Bryson has quickly become one of my favorite authors. I've read all but two of his books and have enjoyed each one of the immensely. This book is as well written as any other in his catalog, showcasing the Bryson-esque sense of humor and witty prose I've come to love. BUT, with that being said...I rated this two stars because I had to stop reading after the first 50 pages or so. Not because it isn't well written, but because it seemed entirely too mean spirited. Bryson comes across as a scholarly expatriate returning to the U.S. with the conception that his education and cultural learnings somehow deem him superior to the "regular" folks he meets. The point at which I stopped reading was this quote directly from the book regarding the seemingly backward pronunciation of town names in Kentucky: "I don't know whether the people in these towns pronounce them that way because they are backward, undereducated ****kickers who don't know any better or whether they know better but don't care that everybody thinks they are backward undereducated ****kickers." Sorry, Bill...but this is just a mean book.
JYakus More than 1 year ago
I've read many Bill Bryson books, and this one relates with the rest because of his witty humor and critical demeanor of the values that should be and are not in America. You learn alot about small town America without leaving your own town, and become inspired to see what else abounds past your town line. It's an enjoyable read for anyone.
bj236 More than 1 year ago
It's no Blue Highways but it was an enjoyable read. I enjoy Bryson's writing; his intelligence and dry sense of humor and wry observations. I feel that Bryson could make a description of watching paint dry entertaining as he does in this book; not describing paint drying but describing the mundane aspects of travel in the U.S. A tad harsh on the average "fat tourist" and a little negative overall but an entertaining read worth your money and your time.