Book Review: The Lost Continent

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

I wanted to like this book more than I did.  To be sure, there is plenty to like about this book if you appreciate the author venting his spleen about different aspects of small town life and showing himself rather sour and unlikeable.  I have read books by the author before [1] and read books modeled after his own as well [2], and this was definitely the most disappointing book I have read of his.  It is one thing to make fun of oneself, as the best travel writers frequently do and as the author has done in other books of his.  It is another thing to insult Republicans, Southerners, people of the West, Shriners, dwellers of small towns, and many of the members of the author’s family in order to appear as if one is better than the people one is visiting.  I found the author’s approach pretty intolerable and it made it difficult to accept even the somewhat valid points he was making about historical preservation and what makes for enjoyable travels.  It would have been better than this book was lost than if the author thought he was actually bringing to light neglected places like Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington DC, which are included in the “small-town America” that the author visits.

This book is divided into two halves, East and West, and about 2/3 of the contents are spent on the eastern half of the United States, which the author appears to like better.  In general, the author’s approach is pretty insufferable even to those of us who are pretty familiar with cheap parents who sleep at rest stops and like visiting free places rather than spending money on more expensive places to see.  I have to admit that I didn’t mind this habit so much, aside from the annoyances of sleeping in cars, because there were plenty of battlefields to visit that were very modestly priced to free, and that was much of what I wanted to see along the East Coast anyway.  For me, the thought of visiting small towns and enjoying a slower pace of life and quirky places is something that I still enjoy doing and something that tends to bring out my warmth to others.  For the author, though, he complains about how hard it is to walk places that are made for cars and about how poor Americans are at preserving historical places and about how much empty space there is between towns and on and on.  Reading this book I frequently wished that the author was less of a kvetch and more of a mensch.

A lot of this particular book feels like the moral point to Pixar’s Cars.  The boring drives of interstates are criticized in exchange for the slower but more pleasant sights that one sees through driving on smaller highways through small towns.  Yet while Cars had a redemptive feel to it that was warm in sentiment, this book is all cynicism and sourness and unpleasantness.  One can imagine that the author thought he was being funny and thought that the NPR-listening audience of this book–one of the few things he praises, complaining about the lack of money given to public broadcasting throughout these pages–would similarly look down on the people of the small town.  The author came from Des Moines, but there is no question that this work is written by someone who visits places that are out of the way to find excuses to look down on them and wonder why they haven’t moved to the cities or at least to the suburbs and appreciated the culture that the big city has for people who lack the graciousness to enjoy and accept people as they find them, wherever they are.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Lost Continent

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Supremely Bad Idea | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Building Suburbia | Edge Induced Cohesion

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