There are two sorts of columnists worth reading. One is the expert — someone like Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, a guy who’s breathed music for 30 years and knows more about the subject than Billboard does. The other kind is simply fascinating — someone like Lewis Lapham of Harper’s Magazine, who can make a connection between Louis XIV’s court and Reagan’s cabinet one month and write on cultural commodification the next.
Bill Bryson, the author of the set of columns collected in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” is neither fascinating nor an expert. He’s an American who wrote travel books and newspapered in England for 20 years before returning to New Hampshire with his wife and family in 1996. He’s also the author of the 1998 bestseller “A Walk in the Woods,” a travel diary that details his aborted attempts to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
The best parts of “A Walk in the Woods” worked because not much happened along the trail; in order to fill in the holes, Bryson became something of an expert, studying and researching people, flora, fauna, history and park politics. There’s none of that rigor in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” a coattail collection of columns, originally written for the British magazine Night & Day, that examine the minutiae of American life in neat four-page chunks. In one piece the subject is a small-town post office on customer-appreciation day; in another it’s the tedium of highway driving. Nostalgia accounts for several essays about motels, drive-in theaters, small-town living and the beauty of Thanksgiving.
An editor of mine once told me that any writer you give a column to sooner or later ends up writing about television; he believed that writers are lazy people who would rather turn on the idiot box than get out of their bathrobes and report. Bryson starts writing about television in his third column. (He misses coming home drunk in England and watching lectures on “Open University.”) That column sets up a trap that he falls into for the rest of his book: Almost all of his subjects come to him. An article in the Atlantic Monthly becomes a column about the ludicrous drug war; a box of dental floss works itself into a confused meditation on consumer warnings and born worriers; a catalog prompts a thousand words on shopping. His laziness is contagious: If you read several columns in one sitting, you get to the point where you start skipping over weak leads (“The other day something in our local newspaper caught my eye”; “I decided to clean out the refrigerator the other day”).
Bryson tries to make up for his reportorial torpor with jokes, as if he thinks we’re more likely to enjoy a few strung-together paragraphs about barbershops if there’s a zinger about Wayne Newton’s hair at the end. He also relies on several crutches to get him through his weekly deadlines. Having returned to the States, he trades in the English smirk at absurdity for cudgeling exaggerations — “help the National Rifle Association with its Arm-a-Toddler campaign” — and he wraps almost every piece with a tacked-on paragraph that riffs on an earlier joke.
To be fair, he’s occasionally funny. (In a story about snowmobiling: “The next thing I knew I was on the edge of the New Hampshire woods, wearing a snug, heavy helmet that robbed me of all my senses except terror.”) And in a few columns — one on sending his son off to school, another about why autumn leaves change colors — he actually invests either himself or his resources enough to give the work emotional or intellectual ballast.
Those moments are dismally few. When Bryson’s editor at Night & Day persuaded him to write a column on American life for a British audience, he probably imagined something like Alexis de Tocqueville channeled through Dave Barry. What he got instead was the observational humor of a second-rate Seinfeld leafing through the mail in his bathrobe.