But most of Bryson’s writing—and humor—is in long form. That is, Bryson writes books. There was a time, however, when he wrote a sort-of weekly column for a British newspaper (The Mail on Sunday Night and Day during the years he lived with his family in New Hampshire (he’s since moved back to England). I’m a Stranger Here Myself is about Americana, but not in the same way as The Lost Continent, nor is it about America in the same way that Notes from a Small Island was about England.
The book is actually unique among Bryson’s publications because it isn’t a monolithic work, but rather a compendium of Bryson’s weekly column. Each “chapter” is only a few pages long, the product of explicit editing for length; he has less license for wandering narratives or long story arcs, and I feel as though he forces a terse sort of wit as a result. Bill Bryson is not Dave Barry; his somewhat predictable sign-offs are therefore droll, but border on turgidity, as though forced and unnatural.
Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say that the book was bad or uninteresting. Though terribly compressed, Bryson’s column was still funny and insightful. What I actually found most fascinating was the idea that Bryson, a native-born American but a British expatriate, was writing about America for Englishmen. While it’s certainly both easy and common to take a Seinfeldian “And what’s the deal with X?” approach to comedy, the usual context is that of an audience which lives within the culture being lampooned. I’m a Stranger Here Myself is sort of an inverse of all Bryson’s other travel writing, at least to me as an American. Whereas I might marvel at the strangeness of the Antipodes in Down Under, one comes to realize that America can be just as strange, at least if you don’t live there.
He talks about the death of small downtowns as they cede to superstores with giant parking lots; he talks about American post offices, which are must nicer but apparently also much lazier. He talks about the New Hampshire woods (in what, I think, is one of his better pieces). He most often self-deprecates, preferring to paint himself as a clumsy buffoon, hapless around home repairs, technology, and sports. I find him at his most charming when talking about his hobby horses: the woods and the evaporation of small towns as I mentioned, for instance, as well as a fascinating piece about the dying (and resurgence) are particular regional accents such as that of Martha’s Vineyard. That is truly Bryson at his best; the Seinfeld-meets-Andy-Rooney pieces are funny, but don’t play to Bryson’s strength.
It certainly is not the best introduction to Bryson: reading this, you would not get a good impression of his extraordinary talents as a writer and observer. For people who are Bryson fans, or for the lucky Brits who got to read this column when it was current, I imagine it was quite the pleasure. I recommend this book anyway (as I do with any of Bryson’s book), but I suggest you start with a different one.