In all the years I’ve been reading Bill Bryson, I’m surprised that I’ve never heard or read anyone compare him to Robert Byron, the famed travel writers in the 1930s who died during the war. He takes a similarly anecdotal approach to his writing, and with an acerbity that puts Bryson to shame.
The Road to Oxiana documents British journalist Robert Byron’s trip through the Middle East, hitting all of the major places—Tehran, Beirut, Palestine, &c.. Importantly, Byron is there only because of his fascination with Middle Eastern architecture—the only parts of the book, in fact, where his tone is anything but contemptuous is when he’s covering just such a topic—and in fact has little patience for either the native inhabitants or the European rulers (this book takes place after the post-war division of the region among various European powers: in fact, since a lot of Byron’s interactions are with the foreign inhabitants, the Middle East hardly seems as though it’s Middle Eastern. It’s like a great big block party for the English and French.
What really grabs me about The Road to Oxiana is what a smörgåsbord of styles Byron uses, and his sheer love of rhetorical invention. The book veers from terse journal-style recordkeeping, to long play-style passages which use musical notation to show volume changes, to winding descriptions of edifices where Byron gets downright wondrous.
The book is, essentially, travel writing. Thus, it may appeal to fans of the genre: my love of Bill Bryson might be part of the reason why The Road of Oxiana resonated with me, although Byron is significantly more acerbic than Bryson ever gets, and this constant disparagement of everything and everyone ceases to be amusing and becomes trying very early on. It is no wonder that Byron had very few friends to mourn him when he was killed during WWII. It is only through the efforts of modern travel writers that this book is available at all: Paul Fussell, who provides the introduction to the book, was instrumental in its rerelease in the early 1980s. One can see how the appeal of a book about the Middle East—especially the Middle East circa 1933—would wane somewhat in modern America, but the book really is a jewel of writing, filled with language both hilarious and beautiful.