Up in Minnesota this past weekend at my uncle-in-law’s cabin, I picked up a copy of A Walk in the Woods, which for sometime now, my sister has been urging everyone in our family to read.
That the book is very funny is the first thing anyone will tell you about it, and it’s true, I laughed out loud a lot during the first fifty or so pages. One part in particular, a punchline about Snickers candy bars, comes after a long build-up, and I struggled for two minutes to read it aloud to my wife, I was laughing so hard. The strength of the first fifty pages alone is undoubtedly responsible for a good deal of the book’s commercial success. People get just that far, call a friend and say “You’ve got to read this book.” If recommendations were given only at the end of the book there would certainly be fewer of them.
Which is not to say that where A Walk in the Woods is not funny, it’’ bad. It’s just ordinary. There is, to begin with, the fact that while the book blurb reads, “Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native county by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail,” he in fact did no such thing. After six weeks of walking, Bryson rents a car and drives from Tennessee to Virginia. Then he takes most of the rest of the summer off, commuting to the trail for day hikes only, and returns for an aborted final trek through the last part of the AT, the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. So, an adventure story, the book is not.
John Updike wrote about book reviewing, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Ergo, I will not blame Bill Bryson for not actually walking all that much of the Appalachian Trail. I will, however, blame him for the insipidness of many of the cultural observations he makes along the way. One chapter opens, “Now here’s a thought to consider. Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked farther than the average American walks in a week.” Brilliant observation, Mr. Bryson, and surely the kind of insight that can be gained only after dabbling in the Appalachian Trail for a few weeks.
Other Bryson reckonings are similarly astute. America is overly commercialized, loaded with parking lots and strip malls, and populated with overweight, incurious louts like one park ranger he meets who, in spite of having worked at the base of the AT for twelve years, has never actually set foot on the trail. Bryson lived in England for the twenty years before moving back to America and writing this book, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not realizing that there is little novelty in these cloying observations. Still, the book feels entirely like a set-up. The hike is pretense, a frame for shallow commentary and brochure-deep discussion of the natural phenomena Bryson encounters along the way.
My wife would no doubt tell me to lighten up, and maybe so. Hunkered down in a Minnesota cabin, I was happy to find A Walk in the Woods in among the bookshelf miscellany, if only for the early laughs. At the end of the book, Bryson takes stock of what he’s accomplished. All told, he walked 870 miles, a little less than 40 percent of the Appalachian Trail. I would recommend adopting the same approach with A Walk in the Woods. Read the first fifty pages, and then call it quits.