Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book 38: Neither Here Nor There

I quite enjoyed Bryson's book A Short History of Everything.  Not only did he show a great curiousity for the world around him, but he displayed a sense of humor as well as compassion.  He discussed many scientists, their discoveries and quirks, and showed a certain amount of respect for their accomplishments, even when the individual in question was not a good person.  He would poke fun at arguments, but it all was mostly focused on sharing what he learned about the planet's creation and past.
While I have since browsed for other books by Bryson, I have never really read much in the genre of travel writing, and it just didn't seem that reading about the Appalachian Mountains would really be my cup of tea.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised when my friend sent me this book, focusing on his travels in Europe.  I lived in Germany for eight years a child, and another three after graduating college, and have also been to a few of the places he visited.  I figured it would be a perfect way to reminisce about places I've been and see what other places in Europe I should go.
Unfortunately, this book was nowhere nearly as well-written as A Short History of Everything.  I don't feel like I learned too much about the places visited (I thought maybe he'd share random knowledge like in A Short History of Everything, but there wasn't very much) - for the most part, it felt like he simply reiterated stereotypes.  I guess in some cases stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason but I expected better from Bryson.  Also, having never read a travel book before, I wasn't sure what to expect - was it supposed to be a tour of the city, was it supposed to be about random mishaps the author encounters, a bit of both?  Mostly, it seemed like Bryson walked around, ate, and pretty much didn't seem to enjoy himself very much.  He seemed very negative about many things, and Copenhagen was the first place he described that he seemed too truly enjoy, enough to make me want to visit.  He also loved Rome (who doesn't?) but hated Florence (which was one of my favorite trips).  He became more positive towards the last half of the trip but he had lost me by that point.
In ways, I feel bad for disliking this book and his negativity.  Having traveled myself, I'm sure I have shared a few of his thoughts on occasion.  I thought Paris had a few too many tourists, and agree that the Mona Lisa really is barely worth seeing because you can't get closer than 10 feet to it, there's a huge crowd around (all of whom are trying to get a picture of themselves with the painting) and it's kind of small.  I'm sure I have also regretted certain modernizations when looking at gorgeous old architecture.  And I think I would have been fine with some complaints if they had also been accompanied by more genuine enthusiasm.  I may not have enjoyed the Louvre as much as I would have expected, but I loved the Cluny (the medieval museum, it goes by a different name now).  Don't even get me started on Florence (of course, I would be less favorable of Venice, so I definitely understand that not all cities appeal to everyone, but it just felt like this was all negative).  I guess I just figured if you are going to write books about traveling it should be because you love it and the places, and reading the stories should inspire readers to follow in your foot steps.  I didn't want to follow in his foot steps; some of his problems seemed to be due to lack of planning and preparation.  Then again, it's admirable that he could just travel Europe day to day, and see where things took him.  I'm going to be in the British Isles for the month of July, and I already have all my hotels booked, theater tickets, and the only thing that will be on the fly are the train tickets to get me from one city to another.
And that's another reason, I find it hard to judge Bryson completely (well, I totally am, but why I feel bad about it) - this book was published in the early '90s.  How did people travel and plan trips before the internet?  I mean, I know we took family vacations, and my mom called hotels and reserved them ahead of time, while my dad would then map everything out with giant folding maps, but where did she get the phone numbers?  The back of travel guides?  I have no clue.  Also, visiting the cities I loved twenty years ago may have been a completely different experience - I don't know how much money cities have invested in restoration since this book was written.


The Caustic Critic said...

I am not a huge fan of travel books either, generally. The only one I've enjoyed was "A Cook's Tour" by Anthony Bourdain, even though he was also pissed off about everything the whole way (but in a funny way, IMO.)
I'm glad to know not to bother with this one.

Also, Copenhagen IS of my favorite places I visited while in Europe. (To get there, you can take a train that goes INSIDE A BOAT!)

himay >^..^ said...

I'm disappointed this book wasn't as good... maybe you should write one about your travels. :P I just want to go and experience it all for myself, not via a book. But I figured Bryson would be entertaining.

Jen K said...

I think I would have had less of a problem with negativity or anger if I'd been expecting it. It's just that in the only other Bill Bryson book I've read he approached his subject with respect and wonder, even when he poked fun at or pointed out the ludicrous and ridiculous. The switch here was very unexpected.