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


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.


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.

Carol Hislop

This book has given me a lot of suggestions of places to visit in the US. Top of my list is the Henry Ford museum in Illinois. Apparently it contains things like Abraham Lincoln's chair, George Washington's desk and the JFK's car. This book is a bit like the collections in that museum-totally varied and you never know what is coming next. On my to visit list now are the little Dutch town, Pella, in Iowa, Mackinac Island in Wisconsin, and Wyoming-anywhere in that state sounds good. Las Vegas, Providence and long distance bus journeys are off it. Great book.


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.

Kevin Larose

It wouldn’t be mucho f an exaggeration to say that one of my lifelong desires is to take a cross-country car trip. My dad and I would sometimes talk about doing it someday; pointing the car east, sampling the local flavor, maybe take in some sporting events, who knew? We never got around to doing it, and I’ve long since made peace with the fact that this desire will almost certainly never be fulfilled. However, reading books like Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent allows me to at least vicariously travel the cross-country highways. Bryson’s style is highly entertaining. It felt like I was riding along with him in the Chevy Chevette he borrowed from his mom for the trip. He visited a total of 38 states, covering nearly 14,000 miles total. Sadly, neither the state where I’ve spent most of my life (Washington) nor the one where I currently live (Indiana) wound up being on his itinerary, but it was still an entertaining read nonetheless. I may never get to go on that long road trip, but books like this are the next best thing.


I didn't get but a couple of pages into the book and I started laughing out loud. I have found that I like Bill Bryson's travelogues/stories. At times, he seems a bit of a sarcastic curmudgeon but that just adds to the humor. He puts on pages, some of the things we only dare to think in moments of frustration, irritation and amused observations. When my family heard me laugh as I read this book, I felt I had to read them some of the humorous excerpts. Now they want to read Bryson's book. Note: This was a book that I received as a bookring through


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.


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.

Jill Furedy

Huh. My dad liked Bryson's memoir, a friend liked his new one: At Home, and at work we sell lots of Short History. I like road trips, tourist traps and the rest so this seemed like a good place to start. Blurbs said it was funny. Don't think I laughed once. As it turns out, this was a fairly unwelcome journey on my part and I traveled it as begrudgingly as Bryson seems to have undertaken his trip. He's miserable the whole time...he hates tourist traps at some points, loves them at others, hates fast food and then can't wait to have some, he's searching for utopia by driving past everywhere as quickly as possible. I felt like I was yelling at him as he sped past...hey, you missed something good! In both of my homestates, he didn't even try to see anything worthwhile. On a road trip to see America, he skipped nearly all of Route 66, but griped about the loss of it and the Lincoln Hwy. Everyone he saw was fat and stupid, though he only stopped anywhere long enough to speak to waitresses and hotel clerks and if he's as much of a joy as he seems to be, then I can't blame anyone for avoiding conversation and interaction with him. He traveled at times when things were closed, which allowed him to be just as disappointed at he wanted to be at nothing living up to expectations. You get the idea. I get the idea that I picked the wrong book to introduce myslelf to this author, but won't be rushing out to try another one to remedy that impression. Too many other books on my list, and I deal with enough cranky people at work to want to deal with any others in my spare time.

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.


This is the worst book ever. Bryson is a fat, cynical white guy traveling around the country, proclaiming in the subtitle: "Travels in Small Town America." But like most fat white guys, Bryson is scared of small town America. He hates every small town he comes to- whether they're on Indian reservations, small farming communities in Nebraska, southern towns full of African Americans where the author is too scared to even stop the car, or small mining communities in West Virginia, also where the author is too scared to stop. How can you write a book about small town America when you're too scared to stop in any small towns??? His favorite towns? Pittsburg and Charlotte. (Definitely "small" in my world.)Driving through the north woods, crossing the border from Maine to New Hampshire: "The skies were still flat and low, the weather cold, but at least I was out of the montony of the Maine woods."In Littleton, on the Vermont border: "People on the sidewalk smiled at me as I passed. This was beginning to worry me. Nobody, even in America, is that friendly. What did they want from me?"At a cemetery in Vermont: "I stood there in the mile October sunshine, feeling so sorry for all these lukles speople and their lost lives, reflecting bleakly on mortality and my own dear, cherished family so far away in England, and I thought, 'Well, fuck this,' and walked back down the hill to the car."At least he freely refers to himself as a "flinty-hearted jerk-off."Maybe Mr. Bryson should get off his lazy ass, stop whining about England, and actually stop the car once in a while. This book spouts so much hateful white guy racism that I can't even bring myself to give it away. While I am 100% against burning or destroying any kind of book, I simply cannot let this one leave my hands. It will probably just find someone who agrees with it's horrible twisted and pessimistic point of view! I haven't decided if I'm going to just bury it in my storage space (which may mean when I leave my apartment someone else might pick it up), or "accidentally" drop it in a snowbank outside. At least in spring the pages would all be glued together, and no one would be able to read it ever again.


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 a good metro book, but it didn't live up to my expectations. This is the first Bill Bryson I've ever read, and I love travelogues, so I assumed I would love his writing. But, really, he's kind of an ass, and sometimes he's just mean . . . and not in a good way. It got better as it went along, but there were a lot of points when I just wanted to say, "well if Britain is so great, why don't you move back there and just shut up!?"I've heard that this isn't one of Bryson's best (I think it was one of his first books), so I'm not going to write him off completely (yet).

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).


When reading this book, American readers may very well feel like they are eavesdropping on a conversation not intended for their ears. This is because Bill Bryson obviously intended this book to be read by a British audience. There are lots of laughs in this book. His depictions of Iowa made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. For example, his explanation for why so many farmers are missing fingers:"Yet, there is scarcely a farmer in the Midwest over the age of twenty who has not at some time or other had a limb or digit yanked off and thrown into the next field by some noisy farmyard implement. To tell you the absolute truth, I think farmers do it on purpose. I think working day after day beside these massive threshers and balers with their grinding gears and flapping fan belts and complex mechanisms they get a little hypnotized by all the noise and motion. They stand there staring at the whirring machinery and they think, 'I wonder what would happen if I just stuck my finger in there a little bit.' I know that sounds crazy. But you have to realize that farmers don't have whole lot of sense in these matters because they feel no pain. It's true. Every day in the Des Moines Register you can find a story about a farmer who has inadvertently torn off an arm and then calmly walked six miles into the nearest town to have it sewn back on. The stories always say, 'Jones, clutching his severed limb, told his physician, 'I seem to have cut my durn arm off, Doc.' It's never: 'Jones, spurting blood, jumped around hysterically for twenty minutes, fell into a swoon and then tried to run in four directions at once,' which is how it would be with you or me."This stuff cracks me up. Maybe it's because I grew up in Iowa too. From an American's point of view, I was at times amazed by the important landmarks Bryson missed seeing or failed to appreciate. He drove by Monticello, for heaven's sake! In Springfield, Illinois, he "drove around a little bit, but finding nothing worth stopping for" he left -- Springfield, Illinois -- the home of Abraham Lincoln and his burial place! He passed up touring the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, because it cost too much! He called Gettysburg a flat field -- a battlefield of such varied topography as to make one wonder whether Bryson actually visited it! He missed Lake Tahoe! He also missed seeing Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine. Nor did he have any lobster along the Maine coast. Yet he felt informed enough to conclude that there was nothing special about Maine. Hurrumph! These failings may be forgiven though, because he has lived away from the United States for a long time. And, to be fair, he traveled far and wide and saw many wonderful places. From his well-written depictions, I've regained a desire to see places in the United States I haven't visited yet, including Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mackinaw Island, Michigan. Overall, I enjoyed the book and enjoyed many laughs in reading it, which is why I like reading Bryson's books so much. But he seemed to tire out toward the end of the book and toward the end of his travels. His outlook became more and more jaundiced -- which is not good, when his outlook is generally jaundiced to begin with. Part I is the best part of the book, which focuses on the Midwest and East Coast. Part II, about Bryson's travels in the West, seems tacked on and unnecessary for the book (except for his description of his drive through the Colorado mountains to Cripple Creek and his depiction of his first view of the Grand Canyon ("The fog parted. It just silently drew back, like a set of theater curtains being opened, and suddenly we saw that we were on the edge of a sheer, giddying drop of at least a thousand feet. 'Jesus!' we said and jumped back, and all along the canyon edge you could hear people saying, 'Jesus!' like a message being passed down a long line. And then for many moments all was silence, except for the tiny fretful shiftings of the snow, because out there in front of us was the most awesome, most silencing sight that exists on earth.")). *There is some swearing in the book.

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