The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

ISBN: 0060920084
ISBN 13: 9780060920081
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

'I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to'And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn't hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. Travelling around thirty-eight of the lower states - united only in their mind-numbingly dreary uniformity - he discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land.The Lost Continent is a classic of travel literature - hilariously, stomach-achingly funny, yet tinged with heartache - and the book that first staked Bill Bryson's claim as the most beloved writer of his generation.

Reader's Thoughts


Well, ain't it somethin for dat rascally Mr. Bryson wit all o dat funny Northern talk to make his way down here to Dixie and spend some time wid us! We sure do 'ppreciate you takin us into your rich and well-knowed book, Mr. Bryson. And yer gosh-darn-right, God save all those poor folk who done shopped at K-Mart! They should've spent their nickels at Crate & Barrel had they knowed what to do wid demselves.....

Lorenzo Pilla

Bad. Bad. Bad. While Bryson can be funny at times, I quickly grew tired of him and eventually he just annoyed me with this one. I would have stopped in the middle, but for my book club's sake, I plodded through, skimming some sections toward the end. This isn't real travel writing. Bryson was a longtime expat in England who returned to the US apparently so he could cynically criticize just about everyone and everything he saw here. I got the feeling that he had pitched the book idea to his publisher and gotten his advance money before thinking better of the idea when it was already too late. It sounds like this "journey" was a labor of hate.I also lived in England for a couple of years before returning to the US. But when I returned, I saw this country with fresh eyes and now feel better able to appreciate both its strengths and its faults. Bryson sounds like he just came back to show us how much better HE is than us. His wit just doesn't sound like it comes from someone who ultimately cares about his subjects. It just sounds like a schoolboy ripping on anyone who's different from him. His other books may be better but definitely give this one a pass.


Sometimes I feel like I'm the only person who's noticed the fact that Bill Bryson is a smug bastard who casts a pall of depressing sarcasm over everything he writes about. I mean, I'm all for sarcasm in most cases, but it's as though all of his subjects are cheapened and made despicable by his prose. In The Lost Continent, he turns every small-town inhabitant into an ignorant, obnoxious caricature. The book has virtually nothing to offer, unless you, too, are hell-bent on whining about the constant ennui of middle-American travel. If you'd like a travelogue with value and interest, try Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon, who actually has some respect for his fellow human beings.


This book: part humor, part travelogue, narrates Bryson's road trip across the United States and back again. Bryson travels without strict itinerary, and with frequent stops in small towns across the country. The narrative is written in classic Bryson style, with frequent diversions to explain the origin of many of life's oddities, and with constant sideline commentary. As is usually the case with Bryson, the narrative is illuminating, amusing, and shows Bryson's sense of adventure. It was a pleasure to read. Yes, Bryson is frequently critical, but it's important to note that he's an equal-opportunity offender. Wherever he goes he brings his decidedly sarcastic wit, but he also balances criticism with admiration. This is not a book with a weighty message about humanity or morality, but it is a fun read to pick up and put down at leisure. And the ability to dive in and out is one of the beautiful things about this book; one can enjoy it and put it aside at will, and it takes little time to become reengaged in Bryson's prose.


The best parts about this book are the moments when I felt as if I could hear my own voice as a child stuck in the back seat of a red Chevette as my dad drove us all over tarnation. Bryson's accounts of childhood roadtrips are hilariously intertwined with his journey down memory lane on a cross country trek of disappoinment and glee. The sad undertones to some of his accounts really hit home to a near 30-year-old who realizes places and events of childhood just aren't quite as big, quite as pretty, or quite as cool when revisited as an adult.


Bill Bryson is an excellent writer; this book reads quickly; I enjoyed the process of reading it, the general narrative, and the humor therein.That said, either Bill Bryson is a huge jerk and America is a great place, or America is awful and Bill Bryson is just a decent guy being honest. Seriously, the book runs something like this:1) I don't like this town, it's all shoddy motels and neon signs and fast food. I want a quaint little town.2) I don't like this quaint little town, all it does is use its quaintness to cater to tourists.3) I don't like this quaint little town, all it is is a quaint little town that is friendly to tourists (but doesn't cater to them)--I want shoddy motels and neon signs and fast food!Again, Bryson is an excellent writer--I definitely laughed out loud several times, but with a couple of minor exceptions (western Wyoming, a couple of small towns here and there) there is absolutely nothing that he likes in America. And while that's okay from time to time, after a hundred pages it starts to wear on you a bit, and by the end of the book you're sort of half hoping that he's set upon by hillbillies or angry ranchers or some such. So, I guess I can recommend the book in terms of it being a good read, but with the warning that this book is rancorous without that necessary sense that there's good humor hidden under the surface that can make a cranky person enjoyable to be around.

Troy Blackford

What a great look at what America is like on a micro-level. Having grown up in small towns in the Midwest, I really identified with the places (unfortunately, for the most part) that Bryson visited in his journey. I loved how Bryson, a Des Moines native, moved away to the UK for 20 years and thus explores the country as a knowing outsider. The tone of the book is almost explaining the US to the British, so it was great to get a fresh perspective on things. Bryson's curmudgeonly displeasure at the many inconveniences he encounters along the way is a constant source of humor. I can't recommend this book enough. A quick but fascinating and engaging read.


Bryson does two things very well in this book, besides his trademark humour which is happily a constant in this and every other book he's ever written. He captures the spirit of the land at a very specific time in its recent history: 1987, the high water mark of the Reaganite project. Time and again, he is left demoralized by the mindless affluenza that was the hallmark of American society during the latter half of the 1980s. More broadly, Bryson leaves a depressingly accurate description of the tawdriness and vulgarity of America's built environment - a cement desert of motels, burger joints, gas stations, strip malls, freeways and parking lots repeated ad nauseam throughout the Lower 48 - that is painfully recognizable even 25 years later. If you have ever wondered at the wanton debasement that has been visited on the land by its greedy natives, if you have ever been saddened by the pitiless ugliness that surrounds you in America's cities, towns and suburbs, then surely this book is for you. Afterwards, read Edward Abbey and Philip Connors to cleanse your soul and to give thanks for the national parks and wildernesses that still do a stalwart job of protecting nature's beauty and grandeur against a hostile population. PS This was Bryson's first book. The opening lines - "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." - must constitute one of the great introductions by any writer in contemporary literature.

Al Young

Bryson was a recommendation from a friend that I am just now getting to. He is also a writer born and raised in Des Moines, so figured he was worth looking into.Interestingly, the copy I have is autographed and I bought it here in DM for $4. I get a feeling that Bryson would get some sort of peculiar appreciation of it. The concept of the book is that Bryson travels the country to relive some of those family vacations we all took when we packed everyone in to the car years ago.I liked this book immensely. It is, as the back cover reviews claim, on the service cynical and sarcastic, but at its heart, nostalgic and appreciative (or as one reviewer said "like Steinbeck, if he traveled with David Letterman instead of Charly). My immediate thought was to recommend this book to everyone (although, maybe I am naive, Amazon gives it only an embarassing 3 stars) .I got a lot of laughs out of it, and the fact that so much time is spent in Iowa and Carbondale, Illinois (places I know and have lived) got a special kick. It is likely that you will recognize some locations from the 38-state trip as well.Ok, I'm still going to give this my highest recommendation, and hopefully next time I will be putting money directly into Bryson's pocket (although I still think the autograph is pretty cool).

D.A. Cairns

This is the first Bill Bryson book I have read and it's not hard to see why he has become so popular. Written in a mostly conversational style, as though he were relating the highs and lows of his travel experiences to his friends over dinner just after he returned, it is filled with very poignant, evocative language. Bryson's descriptions make you feel as though you can see what he can sees. I really enjoyed The Lost Continent for this reason alone.However, The Lost Continent is almost more of an anti travel guide. I reckon that for more than half the book he is mercilessly bagging the places he visited during his drive around the United Sates, and the people who live there. It's really very mean at times, although I'm sure it is intended to be funny. Crass generalizations and hyperbolic stereotyping are the order of the day. Clearly this is meant to be a humourous read, but I have to say, I barely cracked a smile.I'm not saying it's a bad book. On the contrary, it's very good. It's just that Bryson comes across badly. He doesn't sound like a nice person, although he, and his critics may argue that he is simply being honest, and that the nasty and predominantly negative commentary he provides is not indicative of his character.Ironically, I feel as though I must visit the places he visited. I feel compelled to walk in his footsteps and see how my perception and experience marry with his. Could some of these small American towns be as bad, or as good, as he described? It's a question I hope to be able to answer one day. For now, I will consider reading what he has to say about my homeland, Australia, in his book, Down Under. Do I dare? Am I brave enough?


How can a man think he's seen America if he refuses to get out of his car? Bill Bryson perfectly embodies what Wendell Berry would describe as a "failure to encounter": Bryson doesn't encounter America. He doesn't find it. He treats it like a disposable tissue, with as little interest in where it came from and in where it's going. Our nation does have a problem in rampant, mindless consumption, but along with our (possibly fatal) flaws are millions of fascinating people, good hearts, heartbreaking tales, catastrophic disasters, systematic abuses of horror and hatred, and sublime skies and lands which claim our devotion even when our nation's history seems like one long, miserable tragedy. How did Bryson have the audacity to write a book about America and not visit an inner-city slum? How could he fail to get out and talk to the Native Americans in South Dakota, rather than just dismissing the state as 'empty'? How could he treat the Sequoias so thoughtlessly, be so little moved by the sadness and beauty of the Old South, the haunting eeriness of West Texas, how could he miss the pretty, solid, dependable beauty of Maine, or the sorrow of loss that arises as each new suburban development imposes the same mask over the gorgeous landscape that is our home? How did Bryson get paid for this? How did he miss his own country? I cannot understand.


Ha, oh America!As much as I hesitated to read a travelogue about America while living abroad (I mean, shouldn't I be reading about my host country), my diminishing pile of books from home lead me to this humorous Bryson tale.I've now had a couple of encounters with Bryson's writing and each time, seem to grow more and more fond of his haphazard style of not only traveling but writing as well. How many other authors dare pay tribute to their deceased housmaid in the middle of a book or drop in random facts about world happenings in irrelevant places? Now that's the type of stuff that keeps you on your toes!As for the undying cynicism, well, what do you expect? The man left America to live in Britain of all places! I mean, come on, obviously he's going to find Friday night football and town hall meetings a bit trite!Personally I find his accounts of each state absolutely hilarious! Bryson's omnipresent cynicism and nack for pointing out the obvious (with out regards to political correctness) bring a bit of truth to 'small town America' that is probably often lost or overlooked in any other true 'guidebook.' To say that that the author is honest about what he feels would be, well, an extreme understatement! Each trip through each state is as steroetypically perfect as is the idea of a fat white man calling a long circular drive across an entire continent with no particular destination a 'vacation.' To find this book any less than humurous one would have to maintain a cynicism much more deeply rooted than Bryson portrays his own to be, or, perhaps, you might just have to come from one of the dozens of small towns that he makes fun of along the way!


Van Bill Bryson las ik eerder 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' (****1/2, zoals de titel het zegt, een beetje overvanalles) en 'In a Sunburned Country (*****, over een rondreis doorheen de Australische outback), en zoals jullie aan de toegekende sterren kunnen zien, zijn die me heel erg bevallen.'The Lost Continent' is opnieuw een reisverhaal, zoals het overgrote deel van Brysons oeuvre. Deze keer gaat het, zoals de ondertitel 'Travels in Small-Town America' aangeeft, over een rondreis doorheen de Verenigde Staten, waarbij het accent meer ligt op de kleine dorpen en steden, en de grootsteden zoveel mogelijk vermeden worden.Brysons uitgangspunt is de zoektocht naar 'the perfect small town.' Hij vertrekt vanuit de plek waar hij is opgegroeid, Des Moines, Iowa, en maakt een 8-vormige rondrit per auto doorheen 38 van de 48 Amerikaanse staten (de overzeese staten Hawaii en Alaska worden hier niet meegerekend). Eerst gaat het via het zuiden richting de Carolina's en de oostkust tot Boston, en via de Great Lakes terug naar Des Moines, voor een kleine tussenstop. Vervolgens via New Mexico naar Nevada en California, en noordwaarts naar Montana en South-Dakota, een totaal van net geen 14.000 miles (ofte +/- 22.500 km).Dit boek is een echte Bryson; vlot lezend, korte hoofdstukjes, feiten afgewisseld met subjectieve indrukken en leuke anekdotes. De leegheid van de Noordwestelijke staten Montana, Wyoming en de Dakota's, bijvoorbeeld, beschrijft hij eerst uitgebreid, om die vervolgens via feiten (amper 2,6 miljoen inwoners voor een oppervlakte van zo ongeveer West-Europa) te staven.Bryson probeert ook bij elke bezienswaardigheid of toeristische trekpleister na te gaan of het de aandacht verdient, of eigenlijk enkel een tourist-trap is.Eén minpuntje: aangezien het boek dateert van 1990, is het al serieus verouderd. Zo heeft hij het, bij zijn blitz-bezoek aan New York, over 'a guy, named Donald Trump, a developer, who is slowly taking over New York, building skyscrapers all over town with his name on them.' Maar dat speelt enkel in referenties naar beroemdheden, en die komen niet zo vaak voor. Het is eerder amusant dan dat het stoort. En uiteraard is een beetje kennis van de Amerikaanse cultuur, zoals Gettysburg en Mount Rushmore, altijd handig.Eindbeoordeling: ****


This was an account of Bryson’s trip around the US in a car. His focus was on small towns. He traveled from Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennesee, to Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, the Mid Atlantic states, New England, Ohio, Michigan back to Iowa for a rest. Then he heads out west. He hits Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Dakotas, Montana and then back home to Iowa. He missed only 10 of the 52 states. There were some things I like about this book. The humor..the humor…uh, the humor. That’s about it. I grew tired of his complaints about everything from how expensive everything was, how bad the food was, how terrible the service was, how dirty the motel rooms were and how bad of a job the government does managing our National Parks. This isn’t the first time he has mentioned this. He also complains about our national parks in A Walk in the Woods. I ask you Bill, what does the government manage well? I felt like I was reading a diatribe of a cranky old man who didn’t want to do his job. He was searching for Amalgam and he found it a few times but for the most part, he was miserable. So the question is, why did he do it? He left his wife and kids in England and spent weeks on the road driving from small town to small town with rarely a kind word to say about anything. I’m surprised he was the same person who wrote A Walk In the Woods. These books are so different.


I started this book while I was sitting in the jury pool waiting room. The first chapter made me laugh out loud. I was sitting in the most uncomfortable, boring, and annoying place in the universe and it still made me laugh out loud. People looked at me. However, after the first few chapters I noticed a steady decline. I stopped reading about halfway through the book because I had read the word fat about 3,000 times. I get it. You don't like fat people. Noted. (But, by the look of the jacket photo, you are no where near slim, Billy.) I picked it up again a few months later to finish it because frankly, I want to give it away and thought I might as well finish it first. That being said, Bryson's writing throughout the book was clean and concise, regardless if I liked what he was saying. Unfortunately, the point of the book strayed from revisiting some of the places his father took him as a kid to visiting every boring sad town he could find, where he stayed at a boring sad hotel, and ate at the greasiest and saddest restaurants. He made no effort. Literally he rolled out of bed off of his empty cans of beer to the closest restaurant. I get it. Parts of Amercia aren't beautiful, wealthy, or exciting. But he made zero effort to even talk to anyone from these towns. Maybe he could have listened to a few stories about why they loved or loathed their town. The closest he ever came to talking to someone was over hearing a conversation, and those accounts ususally rang untrue. However, without talking to anyone besides a waitress and a hotel resptionists he makes this sweeping judgement, "I drove on, thinking what an ironic thing it was that the really beautiful places in America-the Smoky Mountains, Appalachia, and now Vermont-were always inhabited by the poorest, most uneducated people."I know he went out of his way to pick the worst and most boring towns in America because in California he visited LA, Fresno, and Jackson. Are you kidding me? There are 3,000,000 quaint sweet little towns up and down the coast and he chose to go to Fresno? I usually like people who have a negative sense of humor. Mainly, I like them because I have a negative sense of humor. However, Bryson refused to look for anything positive about a town unless the residents were wealthy. If he was touring a museum or area with big houses and a Ralph Lauren shop on the Main Street the guy lit up like a big FAT Christmas tree. Her are a few examples of his overwhelming negativity:"Poor guy! And on top of that here he was married to a woman who was slovenly and indiscreet, and had a butt like a barn door. I hoped old Harvey had sense enough to appreciate all the incredible natural beauty with which God had blessed his native state because it didn't sound as if He has blesses Harvey very much. Even his kids were ugly as sin. I was half tempted to give one of them a clout myself as I went out the door. There was just something about his nasty little face that made you itch to smack him.""It was a shock to realize that never again in the whole of eternity would he laugh over "I Love Lucy" or repair his car or talk with his mouth full (something for which he was widely noted in the family). It was awesome." (This was him reflecting on his Grandfather's funeral, by the way.)"...all the cigarette girl and ladies who gave change were dressed in skimpy togas, even if they were old and overweight, which most of them were, so their thighs wobbled as they walked. it was like watching moving JELL-O.""Not surprisingly, none of these dreams came true. (Which is perhaps just as well. Sally Ann Summerfield is a blimp now. She turned up at my high-school reunion two years ago and looked like a shipping hazard.)As you can tell, one of the themes of the book was sexist, misogynistic, and condescending remarks about women. I imagine his wife and kids at home celebrating every day he was gone wasting his time driving around boring, stupid, fat America. There is no way this judgmental sexist prick was missed by his family. I bet the whole trip was their idea.

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