I was strolling the aisles of my local mega-bookstore about a week ago looking for something different. I get stuck in reading ruts, you see, and sometimes it only takes a few passes through the vast spaces of Borders or Barnes and Noble (preferable Barnes and Noble) to get my bearings straight and find something new to read. And just what is it about Barnes and Noble anyway? I can easily let two hours slip away while walking the rows and rows of books, magazines, and music, sipping coffee, and nestling in an overstuffed chair with a new book (or ten). My son prefers Borders, but I don't understand how the two can even be compared. Borders is too... stark and utilitarian. B & N's atmosphere and friendly clerks just beckon the book peruser to come in and stay a while. I must admit, though, that I more often than not buy my books at Half Price Books (why pay full price when you don't have to?). I simply don't have the patience to wait for something to arrive from Amazon.
So, back to the book at hand. I found a table of paperbacks with a sign exclaiming Buy One, Get The Second At Half Price!. I drew nearer to the table and sighed. I had avoided this moment for quite some time, but it seemed the avoidance was about to come to an end. I had to face my fear. You see, I'd worn myself out on my favorite genres and needed something different. And I knew the day would come when I would have to face this table and give in to the tiny thread of curiosity that had drawn me here before. Alas, it was the artsy-fartsy table. You know the one I'm talking about. The one with all of the books that are noteworthy and highly praised by critics, but that no one outside of middle aged women in mid-life crises seem to read (that pretty much sums up Oprah's Book Club, does it not?).
So, I find myself trying to choose between several pulitzer worthy (or so we are supposed to believe) books like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. And to tell you the truth, although I really should expand my horizons, I don't want to read any of that shit. The only one I am even remotely interested in is The Road, but McCarthy's style of leaving out punctuation, and generally ignoring grammar of any sort, just really pisses me off. So I scan past that, and out of the mirk of mirth-filled, cardboard-surrounded snobbery, a gleam of shining greenness calls out to me. "What's this?" I say to myself. I pick it up, turn it over and begin to read the synopsis. Once done with that I open to the first page, start reading, and before I flip the first page begin to laugh out loud.
After twenty years abroad in England, Bill Bryson and his family move back to The United States, settle in a small New England town, and he begins to reacquaint himself with his native country. He realizes one day that the Appalachian Trail runs practically through his back yard, and there the idea is born. He begins to think that walking the Appalachian Trail (all 2200 miles of it) is the perfect way to re-familiarize himself with the essence of America. The only problem is, Bill is middle aged, not quite fit, and a little terrified of actually going out there. Nevertheless, he sets his mind to it and sends out a blanket invitation to friends to accompany him on his journey (knowing quite well that none of his friends have time to take out of their schedules to do a potential 5 month walk in the wilderness). However, one friend does answer: his unemployed, overweight, reformed alcoholic college buddy Stephen Katz. The two agree on a start date and after a plane ride to Georgia (where the trail head begins in the South), they embark on a hilarious set of nail biting, cringe worthy adventures through the great eastern wilderness. They meet strange characters along the way, argue, laugh, sweat, and curse their way through the woods, and every bit of it is enjoyable. Bryson does an outstanding job of interweaving the tale of the trek with history, data, and social commentary. There is never a dull moment.
I have already gone out and bought copies of Notes From a Small Island (Bryson's account of his farewell trek around Britain, and yes, I am already laughing two pages into it) and A Short History of Nearly Everything (a departure from the travelogue for Bryson, and I was chuckling after only reading the title). I'm reading Notes From a Small Island now and it promises to be just as funny, informative, and entertaining as A Walk in the Woods.
If you have never read a book by Bill Bryson, it is my strong recommendation that you go out now and get one. I suggest A Walk in the Woods, but I reckon before long I will be recommending all of them, to everyone.