The question is, was it Bill Bryson?
I’ve just finished listening to Bryson’s most recent book, The Road to Little Dribbling. I have a history of listening to Bryson’s books on CD, dating back to when someone loaned me a boxed set of three Bryson CD books several years back after a conversation about the life-saving qualities of audio books in rush-hour traffic. Somehow, I had not read Bryson before then; I was hooked with the first chapter.
The set I was loaned included Notes from a Small Island, Neither Here Nor There, and I’m a Stranger Here Myself, all read by Bryson himself. If you have not already listened to it, get it now, even if you’ve already read all three books. Bryson is a marvelous reader, engaging and wry, just like his books. Hearing him read these books is not just enjoyable, not just funny; it’s gut-splitting, laugh-aloud, guffaw-in-the-midst-of-rush-hour funny. Time and again, I found myself running the CD back to rehear sections because I had laughed too hard the first time to catch everything. Time and again, I have gone back to these CDs over the years and laughed aloud all over again.
Fast forward to the 2016 release of The Road to Little Dribbling, and not only did I have to read the book; I had to get it on CD and listen to it. I shouldn’t have bothered. Not only was it not nearly as funny as I’m used to Bryson being; it was downright dull and difficult to pay attention to. Only twice did I find real humor, and not once did I laugh out loud. I almost got a twinkle in my eye once; that was the high point.
So what happened?
There are two possible reasons:
- The audio book of Little Dribling isn’t read by Bryson. It’s narrated by actor Nathan Osgood.
- Bryson either (a) has lost his touch or (b) treated this book as a throwaway, not bothering to give it his usual level of attention.
My money is on option 2(b). I’ve not listened to other books narrated by Osgood, but he has real acting chops and seemed to handle Bryson’s material well. His delivery is more serious than Bryson’s own, but I think Osgood’s performance is solid enough to carry good material.
That leaves a deficit in the material as the likely culprit. I doubt that Bryson has actually lost his ability to write well; there were in fact a couple of passages in the book where I could hear echoes or reminders of the Bryson I love. So I’m left with the perplexing notion that he just didn’t bother to work at this book. Here are a few examples of what bothered me:
- A lot of this book just sounds like simple travelogue. I’m talking about purely chronological organization (First I went here and saw this; then I went there and saw this other thing.) and a lot of material that a good editor should have cut out (for example, a passage when he’s planning to go somewhere but gets called away and can’t actually go; why did I need to know that?).
- There’s less about the places and the people he meets, and more about himself, his friends and family, and his minor tribulations. He also seems to spend an inordinate amount of time critiquing the cafe offerings in the museums and other attractions he visits, even after complaining about people who care about such things.
- He’s gone past curmudgeonly in this book and moved on to crabby, and even foul. I’m used to a Bryson who is bemused and bewildered by the foibles of those he meets on his journeys; but the Bryson of Little Dribling is rude, mean and disrespectful. And while I might have a selective memory, I’m pretty sure I never heard an F-bomb from him before. In Little Dribling, I lost count somewhere after the sixth, and I recall at least one “bitch” or “bitches” as well—delivered nastily, I think, not cheerily.
Judging from the audio book, I could actually believe Bryson isn’t really joking in the passage where he (or someone?) says in Little Dribling that the book is actually being crafted by a ghost writer. It plays as a joke, and probably is, but…
Still, I want to give Bryson the benefit of the doubt. So I’m going to reread one of his earlier books, probably Notes from a Small Island; and then I’m going to try reading a physical copy of Little Dribling for comparison. I think that should answer the question, “Who ruined Bill Bryson—Bryson himself or the narrator Osgood?”
I’ll let you know what I find.