Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I am a reader.  I have been since I was a child, although while Dawn and Brett were growing up, my page turning was generally restricted to the daily newspaper.  But now I'm back to books and I rue the day my eyesight cannot be corrected to allow that sedentary activity to continue.

My preference is mysteries.  My current favorite author is Lee Child who has written  over fifteen novels with Jack Reacher, who served 13 years as an MP in the Army before mustering out, as the main character.  I like the plots and Jack's perpetual ability to out-think and out-maneuver suspect parties.

When I'd blasted my way through those novels (and blast I did, as though the books and their tight story lines would disappear before I could more slowly make my way through the series)  I learned of Bill Bryson.  He writes both autobiographically and historically in such a way to often give people and circumstances a humorous edge. 

I'm a Stranger Here Myself is an accumulation of articles Bryson wrote while working for the Times and Independent while living in England.  The following excerpt is from the article, "At a Loss":

"...I always have catastrophies when I travel.  Once on an airplane, I leaned over to tie a shoelace just at the moment that the person in the seat ahead of me threw his seat back into full recline, and I found myself pinned helplessly in the crash position. It was only by clawing the leg of the man sitting next to me that I managed to get myself freed.

"On another occasion, I  knocked a soft drink onto the lap of a sweet little lady sitting beside me.  The flight attendant came and cleaned her up, and brought me a replacement drink, and instantly I knocked it onto the woman again.  To this day I don't know how I did it.  I just remember reaching out for the new drink and watching helplessly as my arm, like some cheap prop in one of those 1950s horror movies with a name like 'The Undead Limb,' violently swept the drink from its perch and onto her lap.

"The lady looked at me with the stupefied expression you would expect to receive from someone whom you have repeatedly drenched, and uttered an exceptionally earnest oath that started with "oh" and finished with "sake" and in between had some words that I have never heard uttered in public before, certainly not by a nun.

"This, however, was not my worst experience on a plane flight.  My worst experience was when I was writing important thoughts in a notebook ("Buy socks," clutch drinks carefully," etc.)  sucking thoughtfully on the end of my pen as you do, and fell into conversation with an attractive lady in the next seat.  I amused her for perhaps twenty minutes with a scattering of urbane bons mots, then retired to the lavatory where I discovered that the pen had leaked and that my lips, tongue, teeth, and gums were now a striking, scrub-resistant navy blue, and would remain so for several days."

Here's a bit from Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, starting with the "big bang": 
"A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing.  Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this "i" can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them or rather more than the number of seconds it takes to make half a million years....

"Now imagine if you can (and of course you can't) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous.  Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter.  Excellent.  You are ready to start a universe."

Now we skip a few sentences ahead:

"[to build a big bang universe] you'll need additional materials.  In fact, you will need to gather up everything there is--every last mote and particle of matter between here and the edge of creation--and squeeze it into a spot so infinitesimally compact that is has no dimensions at all.  It is known as singularity.

"...get ready for a really big bang.  Naturally, you will wish to retire to a safe place to observe the spectacle.  Unfortunately, there is nowhere to retire to because outside the singularity there is no where.  When the universe begins to expand, it won't be spreading out to fill a larger emptiness.  The only space that exists is the space it creates as it goes.

"...the singularity has no around around it.  There is no space for it to occupy, no place for it to be....  Time doesn't exist.  There is no past for it to emerge from."

Well.  After only a few pages, I was rendered speechless, overwhelmed as I tried to comprehend the concept. And unfortunately, once Bryson had gotten me through the creation of earth in Small History, I realized that reading about the next bazillion years didn't interest me as much as I had thought it would, and I returned the book to the library.

If my praises and quotes from two of his books haven't put you to sleep, then perhaps you would be as mesmerized by Bryson's compositions as I am.  (If not, ah well....)  While the concept of History turned out to be more than I wanted to undertake, I can vouch for A Walk in the Woods, At Home, and In a Sunburned Country being easier reads.  I found all three to be entertaining and educational. 

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