Wednesday, August 8, 2007

From the shelves 4

Ah August! The dog days of summer, when it is beastly hot and all you want to do is lay somewhere cool with an icy beverage. The perfect time to take a walk in the woods. No, not a literal one! I mean Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.

To be fair, recommending A Walk in the Woods is a bit of a cheat as it was chosen as one of our book club books the first year I participated. (Yes, it was my suggestion). However, it is still worthy of it's moment in the blog spotlight. This was my introduction to Bryson's work, as it is for many people because it is the most well known of his books. The premise of the book is Bryson's ambition to walk the length of the Appalachian trail, albeit not in one fell swoop. Did I mention that Bryson is not a hiker, nor, by his own admission, particularly physically fit?

Along with some hilarious incidents, most involving an old friend of his named Katz, this book is filled with information about the origins of the trail, the status of the trail and the environment at the time, and lots of other fun facts and trivia and pithy observations about life, the wilderness and humans in general. At times the book will depress you, like when it discusses the deforestation that is occurring in the Blue Ridge Mountains, thanks in part to the pollution from the cars used by the countless campers who come there each year. Many of Bryson's books contain strong environmental themes so if you happen to drive a gas guzzling behemoth and think global warming doesn't exist then you probably won't enjoy this book. But quite frankly most people who are in that state of denial don't read anyway so it is moot point.

Bryson has caught a lot of flack for this book from die hard trail enthusiasts because they felt that he made light of the difficult nature of hiking the trail, and behaved irresponsibly by going out and hiking whilst being woefully unprepared. Clearly the die hard trail enthusiasts think that people who read books like this are stupid and can't learn from Bryson's mistakes. Anyone who reads the description of how he and Katz felt, looked, and smelt after their first foray on the trail will NOT think "hey! I want to do exactly that!" Or if they do and they end up dying because of their foolishness then they will be a prime candidate for the Darwin Awards. Really what bothers the die hard fans is that the book raised the popularity of the trail with day hikers, and they resent the intrusion. Not that you can really blame them for that sentiment, we've all experienced that feeling when the newbies invade.

But back to the book itself. A Walk in the Woods shines a spotlight on often overlooked, and underfunded national park. I grew up in Virginia and now live in North Carolina and despite my knowledge of the trail's existence, I knew next to nothing about it's history or how it was run. My cousin's ex-boyfriend attempted to hike the trail from beginning to end and the trail kicked his ass,(he readily admits this by the way) and he was a major outdoors kind of guy. It is not for light weights or the squeamish as the book makes perfectly clear. But the book is not all "Danger Will Robinson!", or gloomy environmental information. Large portions of it a extremely funny. Bryson has a very deft turn of phrase and the ability to draw the reader in and make them experience everything along with him. An excellent skill in a travel writer don't you think? So take A Walk in the Woods with Bill Bryson, I promise you that you won't regret it. And best of all, you won't need any bug spray.


Mockingbird said...

A great, funny, warmhearted book! You have to love a trail book that contains the following advice: "All the books tell you that if the grizzly comes for you, on no account should you run. This is the sort of advice you get from someone who is sitting at a keyboard when he gives it. Take it from me, if you are in an open space with no weapons and a grizzly bear comes for you, run. You may as well. If nothing else, it will give you something to do with the last seven seconds of your life."

amnbdad said...

Okay, start hissing and making the rude comments now, I didn't really like this book. There were parts that were really good and I wouldn't go so far as to call it a bad book but I was disapointed by it. To be fair I can't really say why it didn't sit well with me, just that it didn't. So go ahead and hate me if you will, I don't mind.

Stacked Librarian said...

There will be no hissing or rude comments from me at least. Bryson's work does tend to contain a certain level of both pathos and alarm. He does however consistently demonstrate a deft turn of phrase and a remarkable ability to fully describe someplace the reader hasn't seen without giving you pages and pages of details.
I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it. Many of the women in our book club didn't enjoy it because they found him to be whiny.