When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a girl called Bobbi and get a job in 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 in the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.
My father liked Iowa. He lived his whole life in the state, and is even now working his way through eternity there, in Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines.
I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking at me with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car.
I assume he was descended from apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope.
I watched a rerun on television of a 1960s comedy programme called "Mr Ed", which was about a talking horse. Judging by the quality of the jokes, I would guess that Mr Ed wrote his own material.
Just down the road stood a little town, which I shall call Dullard lest the people recognize themselves and take me to court or come to my house and batter me with baseball bats.
A sign in the yard of a church next door said CHRIST IS THE ANSWER. (The question, of course, is: What do you say when you strike your thumb with a hammer?)
I mused for a few moments on the question of which was worse, to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted or a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored. But then it occurred to me that musing is a pointless waste of anyone's time, and instead I went off to see if I could find a Baby Ruth candy bar, a far more profitable exercise.
For forty years or so this was the world headquarters of conspicuous consumption.
Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.
Why, it's a perfect little city. If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It's wonderful.
Bill Bryson was later awarded an honorary doctorate and appointed to the position of Chancellor of the University of Durham .
Blackpool's illuminations are nothing if not splendid, and they are not splendid.
I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, "Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!" Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.
All page numbers are from the first trade paperback edition, published by Broadway Books ISBN 978-0-7679-0252-6 in 1999
I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident from the first moment that she was a rarity.
Chapter 4 (p. 51)
If the mattress stains were anything to go by, a previous user had not so much suffered from incontinence as rejoiced in it. He had evidently included the pillow in his celebrations.
Chapter 6 (p. 81)
The Smokies seem to be in the process of losing most of their mussels. The National Park Service actually has something of a tradition of making things extinct. Bryce Canyon National Park is perhaps the most interesting—certainly the most striking—example. It was founded in 1923 and in less than half a century under the Park Service’s stewardship lost seven species of mammal—the white-tailed jackrabbit, prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, flying squirrel, beaver, red fox, and spotted skunk. Quite an achievement when you consider that these animals had survived in Bryce Canyon for tens of millions of years before the Park Service took an interest in them. Altogether, forty-two species of mammal have disappeared from America’s national parks this century.
Chapter 7 (p. 92)
In the Smokies, over 90 percent of Fraser firs—a noble tree, unique to the southern Appalachian highlands—are sick or dying, from a combination of acid rain and the depredations of a moth called the balsam woolly adelgid. Ask a park official what they are doing about it and he will say, “We are monitoring the situation closely.” For this, read: “We are watching them die.”
Chapter 7 (p. 93)
Let’s not lose our perspective here. The Smokies achieved their natural splendor without the guidance of a national park service and don’t actually need it now.
Chapter 7 (p. 94)
Excuse me, but I just have to say this. You are more stupid than a paramecium.
Chapter 8 (p. 106)
I bought a copy of the Nashville Tennessean out of a metal box, just to see what was happening in the world. The principal story indicated that the state legislature, in one of those moments of enlightenment with which the southern states often strive to distinguish themselves, was in the process of passing a law forbidding schools from teaching evolution. Instead they were to be required to instruct that that the earth was created by God, in seven days, sometime, oh, before the turn of the century. The article reminded us that this was not a new issue in Tennessee. The little town of Dayton—not far from where Katz and I now sat, as it happened—was the scene of the famous Scopes trial in 1925, when the state prosecuted a schoolteacher named John Thomas Scopes for rashly promulgating Darwinian hogwash. As nearly everyone knows, Clarence Darrow, for the defense, roundly humiliated William Jennings Bryan, for the prosecution, but what most people don’t realize is that Darrow lost the case. Scopes was convicted, and the law wasn’t overturned in Tennessee until 1967. And now the state was about to bring the law back, proving conclusively that the danger for Tennesseans isn’t so much that they may be descended from apes as overtaken by them.
Chapter 8 (pp. 107-108)
“Virginia?” he said, as if I had asked him if there was anywhere local we could get a dose of syphilis.
Chapter 8 (p. 108)
Now here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American does in a week. For 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. On average the total walking of an American these days—that’s walking of all types: from car to office, from office to car, around the supermarket and shopping malls—adds up to 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day. That’s ridiculous.
Chapter 11 (p. 128)
Now Stonewall Jackson is a man worth taking an interest in. Few people in history have achieved greater fame in a shorter period with less useful activity in the brainbox than Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. (long list of character deficiencies elided)...
His ineradicable fame rests almost entirely on the fact that he had a couple of small but inspiring victories when elsewhere Southern troops were being slaughtered and routed and by dint of having the best nickname any soldier has ever enjoyed.
Chapter 13 (p. 171)
“Tell me, did they specify ’asshole’ on the job description, or did you take a course?“
Chapter 14 (p. 187)
The thing about the Army Corps of Engineers is that they don’t build things very well.
Chapter 15 (p. 198)
America was entering the age not just of the automobile but of the retarded attention span.
For a long time it puzzled me how something so expensive, so leading edge, could be so useless. And then it occurred to me that a computer is a stupid machine with the ability to do incredibly smart things, while computer programmers are smart people with the ability to do incredibly stupid things. They are, in short, a perfect match.
By almost universal agreement, the most vague and ineffectual of all [Presidents] was Millard Fillmore, who succeeded to the office in 1850 upon the death of Zachary Taylor, and spent the next three years demonstrating how the country would have been run if they had just propped Taylor up in a chair with cushions.
America is an outstandingly dangerous place. Consider this: every year in New Hampshire a dozen or more people are killed crashing their cars into moose. Now correct me if I am wrong, but this is not something that is likely to happen to you on the way home from Sainsbury's.
Three things alone are certain when you venture into a loft: that you will crack your head on a beam at least twice, that you will get cobwebs draped over your face, and that you will not find what you went looking for.
Normally, your wife can hear things that no one else on earth can hear. She can hear a dab of jam fall onto a carpet two rooms away. She can hear spilled coffee being furtively mopped up with a good bathtowel. She can hear dirt being tracked across a clean floor. She can hear you just thinking about doing something you shouldn't do. But get yourself stuck in a loft hatch and suddenly it is as if she has been placed in a soundproof chamber.
My wife [...] recently put me on a diet after suggesting (a little unkindly, if you ask me), that I was beginning to look like something Richard Branson would try to get airborne.
[I relaxed] my customary aversion to consulting a book by anyone so immensely pratty as to put "Ph.D." after his name (I don't put Ph.D. after my name on my books, after all — and not just because I don't have one).
According to an opinion poll, 13 per cent of women in the United States cannot say whether they wear their tights under their knickers or over them. That's something like 12 million women walking around in a state of chronic foundation garment uncertainty. Perhaps because I so seldom wear ladies' clothing I don't fully appreciate the challenge involved, but I am almost certain that if I did wear tights with knickers I would know which was on top. More to the point, if a stranger with a clipboard came up to me in the street and asked me how my underwear was configured, I don't believe I would tell him that I didn't know.
There is always a little more toothpaste in the tube. Think about it.
It would be a great abuse of my position to write that it was Northwest Airlines that treated us in this shoddy and inexcusable way, so I won't.
After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind), I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry.
It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game.
Above all, what is oddest to the outsider is that Aborigines just aren't there.
So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn't see them anymore.
It was impossible to determine what he was saying, but I imagined he was telling all those present that they were nongs and maggots. I decided I quite liked watching the news with the sound off.
I'd turn on the lights, but they're blown. I'd offer you a seat, but there isn't one. I'd offer you a drink from the minibar, but there doesn't appear to be one." "It certainly is basic." "Basic? It's a bloody cell!
The Opera House is a splendid edifice, and I wish to take nothing away from it, but my heart belongs to the Harbour Bridge. It's not as festive, but it is far more dominant – you can see it from every corner of the city, creeping into frame from the oddest angles, like an uncle who wants to get into every snapshot. From a distance it has a kind of gallant restraint, majestic but not assertive, but up close it is all might. It soars above you, so high that you could pass a ten-storey building beneath it, and looks like the heaviest thing on earth. Everything that is in it – the stone blocks in its four towers, the latticework of girders, the metal plates, the six-million rivets (with heads like halved apples) – is the biggest of its type you have ever seen. This is a bridge built by people who have had an Industrial Revolution, people with mountains of coal and ovens in which you could melt down a battleship. The arch alone weighs 30,000 tons. This is a great bridge.
Interview with Stanford's Newsletter (June 2001)
There was a lot more joking going on when I was a kid. My dad, for instance, specialised in puns and I remember once we were on vacation in California and we were driving along the San Andreas Fault and he threw a quarter out of the window into the Fault because he said "he had always wanted to be generous to a fault".
I really was more intent on getting out of Iowa than everybody else. I just felt I didn't quite fit in exactly, the way other people did. Then I came here and discovered by living in Britain that being a foreigner is really a treat. It is such a great position to be in. When things are going well you can step forward and take part in the ceremonies and everything is great. And when things are not going well, being entirely hypothetical here, if for example your national football team got beat by Germany, you can stand back and say what a shame.
I had also got used to the idea that here [in the UK] you can make quips all the time and in America that can be very dangerous. I wrote about it in one of the books. Once I was going through customs and immigration in Boston, and the guy said as I went past "Any fruit or vegetables?" and I said "OK, I'll have four pounds of potatoes if they are fresh" and it was like he was going to take me off and pin me to the floor.
Well, I didn't ever think about Australia much. To me Australia had never been very interesting, it was just something that happened in the background. It was Neighbours and Crocodile Dundee movies and things that never really registered with me and I didn't pay any attention to it at all. I went out there in 1992, as I was invited to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and I got there and realised almost immediately that this was a really really interesting country and I knew absolutely nothing about it. As I say in the book, the thing that really struck me was that they had this prime minister who disappeared in 1967, Harold Holt and I had never heard about this. I should perhaps tell you because a lot of other people haven't either. In 1967 Harold Holt was prime minister and he was walking along a beach in Victoria just before Christmas and decided impulsively to go for a swim and dove into the water and swam about 100 feet out and vanished underneath the waves, presumably pulled under by the ferocious undertow or rips as they are called, that are a feature of so much of the Australian coastline. In any case, his body was never found. Two things about that amazed me. The first is that a country could just lose a prime minister — that struck me as a really quite special thing to do — and the second was that I had never heard of this. I could not recall ever having heard of this. I was sixteen years old in 1967. I should have known about it and I just realised that there were all these things about Australia that I had never heard about that were actually very very interesting. The more I looked into it, the more I realised that it is a fascinating place. The thing that really endeared Australia to me about Harold Holt's disappearance was not his tragic drowning, but when I learned that about a year after he disappeared the City of Melbourne, his home town, decided to commemorate him in some appropriate way and named a municipal swimming pool after him. I just thought: this is a great country.
The pool was under construction before he disappeared and is located in the electorate he represented.
I went round to all these minority sports and I couldn't really appreciate them. Fencing, for example, is just "click, click, click" and it is over. Then they retire. Then they go again "On guard — click, click, click" and it is over again. You just think, "what is this sport?" I thought this is really boring and then I went to Judo and it was just the same thing. These two guys just endlessly circling each other, acting as if what they are trying to do is take the others shirt off without him realising this is what they are trying to do. I just thought "what is this? I don't understand this at all". Then I went to table tennis, which obviously I could identify with because I had played it myself — not quite at Olympic standard — but I could understand it. It suddenly became clear to me that these people really are so far beyond anything I could ever dream of becoming. I felt really terrible because I hadn't appreciated the fencers. The reason I couldn't follow them was because they were so damn good. Their hands were so quick that I couldn't see what was going on.
… I had some suggestions [about fencing]. I thought that you could encourage surprise attacks. I thought that would be very good. I kind of liked the idea of arming one guy with a conventional sword but giving the other a pikestaff. My favourite was the idea of blindfolding one of the competitors or blindfolding them both and spinning them around a bit so they were a little bit unstable and then just pushing them towards each other. It would make each match go on a bit longer.
A friend Alan and I ended up in an Outback pub in a place called Daly Waters and apparently, he says, in the course of this very lively evening we spent there I offered to do a house swap with a family from Korea. We weren't sure whether they were from North Korea or South Korea.
It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.
Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you.
All that can really be said is that at some indeterminate point in the very distant past, for reasons unknown, there came the moment known to science as t = 0. We were on our way.
On the moment of creation; page 10
As Edward P. Tryon of Columbia University once put it: "In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our universe is simply one of those things that happen from time to time." To which adds Guth: "Although the creation of a universe might be very unlikely, Tryon emphasized that no one had counted the failed attempts."
In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one's face.
Despite declining catches, New England fishermen continue to receive state and federal tax incentives that encourage them — in some cases all but compel them — to acquire bigger boats and to harvest the seas more intensively. Today the fishermen of Massachusetts are reduced to fishing the hideous hagfish, for which there is a slight market in the Far East, but even their numbers are now falling.
It is natural human impulse to think of evolution as a long chain of improvements, of a never-ending advance towards largeness and complexity — in a word, towards us. We flatter ourselves. Most of the real diversity in evolution has been small-scale. We large things are just flukes — an interesting side branch.
But what is life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours — arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on.
Disassemble the cells of a sponge (by passing them through a sieve, for instance), then dump them into a solution, and they will find their way back together and build themselves into a sponge again. You can do this to them over and over, and they will doggedly reassemble because, like you and me and every other living thing, they have one overwhelming impulse: to continue to be.
Absolute brain size does not tell you everything — or possibly sometimes even much. Elephants and whales both have brains larger than ours, but you wouldn't have much trouble outwitting them in contract negotiations.
Pages 446-447, footnote
Bill Bryson: The accidental chancellor (November 15, 2005)
...Our guide announces that he's going to take us to the coldest place on Earth, where particles are cooled to within a fraction of a Kelvin. "Ah," says Bryson. "That must be Donald Rumsfeld's heart."
One of my duties, this week, is to open the new Ustinov college," he confesses, "and while I'm delighted that Durham should honour its former chancellor this way — and I sincerely hope it continues this tradition for me — I can't help feeling that an American university would only have done so had the chancellor also handed over a substantial amount of dosh.
They [the American authorities] can't actually believe that anyone would want to not be an American," he says. "It's not enough to send them a letter and tell them you've become British; you've got to go to the embassy to formally renounce your US citizenship. I'm a little worried that when I do this they'll pack me off to Guantanamo.
It would be lovely to think I had become a genius," he smiles, "but the fact is that I've forgotten most of it. Occasionally I can be watching University Challenge and a stray fact emerges from the recesses of my subconscious that I didn't know I knew, but for the most part I'm as vague on the details as I ever was.
The makers of sneakers also thoughtfully pocked the soles with numberless crevices, craters, chevrons, mazes, crop circles, and other rubbery hieroglyphs, so that when you stepped in a moist pile of dog shit, as you most assuredly did within three bounds of leaving the house, they provided additional absorbing hours of pastime while you cleaned them out with a stick, gagging quietly but oddly content.
I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. I knew everything there was to know about our house for a start. I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes. I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dust balls beneath them, which ceilings the most interesting stains, where exactly the patterns in wallpaper repeated. I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor, where my father kept his spare change and how much you could safely take without his noticing (one-seventh of the quarters, one-fifth of the nickels and dimes, as many of the pennies as you could carry). I knew how to relax in an armchair in more than one hundred positions and on the floor in approximately seventy- five more. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. I knew how things tasted—damp washcloths, pencil ferrules, coins and buttons, almost anything made of plastic that was smaller than, say, a clock radio, mucus of every variety of course—in a way that I have more or less forgotten now. I knew and could take you at once to any illustration of naked women anywhere in our house, from a Rubens painting of fleshy chubbos in Masterpieces of World Painting to a cartoon by Peter Arno in the latest issue of The New Yorker to my father’s small private library of girlie magazines in a secret place known only to him, me, and 111 of my closest friends in his bedroom.
On April 3, 1956, according to news reports, a Mrs. Julia Chase of Hagerstown, Maryland, while on a tour of the White House, slipped away from her tour group and vanished into the heart of the building. For four and a half hours, Mrs. Chase, who was described later as “dishevelled, vague and not quite lucid,” wandered through the White House, setting small fires—five in all. That’s how tight security was in those days: a not-quite-lucid woman was able to roam unnoticed through the executive mansion for more than half a working day.
He hit the water—impacted really is the word for it—at over six hundred miles an hour, with a report so loud that it made birds fly out of trees up to three miles away. At such a speed water effectively becomes a solid. I don’t believe Mr. Milton penetrated it at all, but just bounced off it about fifteen feet, limbs suddenly very loose, and then lay on top of it, still, like an autumn leaf, spinning gently.
Making models was reputed to be hugely enjoyable... But when you got the kit home and opened the box the contents turned out to be of a uniform leaden gray or olive green, consisting of perhaps sixty thousand tiny parts, some no larger than a proton, all attached in some organic, inseparable way to plastic stalks like swizzle sticks. The tubes of glue by contrast were the size of large pastry tubes. No matter how gently you depressed them they would blurp out a pint or so of a clear viscous goo whose one instinct was to attach itself to some foreign object—a human finger, the living-room drapes, the fur of a passing animal—and become an infinitely long string. Any attempt to break the string resulted in the creation of more strings. Within moments you would be attached to hundreds of sagging strands, all connected to something that had nothing to do with model airplanes or World War II. The only thing the glue wouldn’t stick to, interestingly, was a piece of plastic model; then it just became a slippery lubricant that allowed any two pieces of model to glide endlessly over each other, never drying. The upshot was that after about forty minutes of intensive but troubled endeavor you and your immediate surroundings were covered in a glistening spiderweb of glue at the heart of which was a gray fuselage with one wing on upside down and a pilot accidentally but irremediably attached by his flying cap to the cockpit ceiling. Happily by this point you were so high on the glue that you didn’t give a shit about the pilot, the model, or anything else.
I remember being profoundly amazed that anyone would suppose that a little wooden desk would provide a safe haven in the event of an atomic bomb being dropped on Des Moines. But evidently they all took the matter seriously, for even the teacher, Miss Squat Little Fat Thing, was inserted under her desk, too—or at least as much of her as she could get under, which was perhaps 40 percent. Once I realized that no one was watching, I elected not to take part. I already knew how to get under a desk and was confident that this was not a skill that would ever need refreshing.
And then suddenly I would realize that I couldn’t remember, hadn’t actually consciously experienced, any of the last forty-seven properties I had visited, and didn’t know if I had left a paper or just walked up to the door, stood for a moment like an underfunctioning automaton, and turned around and walked away again. It is not easy to describe the sense of self-disappointment that comes with reaching the end of your route and finding that there are sixteen undelivered papers in your bag and you don’t have the least idea—not the least idea—to whom they should have gone. I spent much of my prepubescent years first walking an enormous newspaper route, then revisiting large parts of it. Sometimes twice.
So to sleep on the sleeping porch required preparation. First, you put on long underwear, pajamas, jeans, a sweatshirt, your grandfather’s old cardigan and bathrobe, two pairs of woolen socks on your feet and another on your hands, and a hat with earflaps tied beneath the chin.Then you climbed into bed and were immediately covered with a dozen bed blankets, three horse blankets, all the household overcoats, a canvas tarpaulin, and a piece of old carpet. I’m not sure that they didn’t lay an old wardrobe on top of that, just to hold everything down. It was like sleeping under a dead horse. For the first minute or so it was unimaginably cold, shockingly cold, but gradually your body heat seeped in and you became warm and happy in a way you would not have believed possible only a minute or two before. It was bliss. Or at least it was until you moved a muscle. The warmth, you discovered, extended only to the edge of your skin and not a micron farther. There wasn’t any possibility of shifting positions. If you so much as flexed a finger or bent a knee, it was like plunging them into liquid nitrogen.
In those days kitchen matches were heavy-duty implements—more like signal flares than the weedy sticks we get today. You could strike them on any hard surface and fling them at least fifteen feet and they wouldn’t go out. Indeed, even when being beaten vigorously with two hands, as when lodged on the front of one’s sweater, they seemed positively determined not to fail.
Wow, look at all the places you can park,” he said, as if for all these years he had been cruising endlessly, unable to terminate a journey. For about a year the most dangerous place to drive in Des Moines was the parking lot of Merle Hay Mall because of all the cars speeding at joyous random angles across its boundless blacktop without reflecting that other happy souls might be doing likewise.
Nearly a quarter of American men were in the Armed forces [in 1968]. The rest were in school, in prison, or were George W. Bush.