Because Hiking and Reading Are Pretty Much the Same


A scenic path through the wilderness

Over the past few weeks, in between rounds of Robinson Crusoe (on audiobook) and Journey to the End of the Night (in French), I’ve turned my exhausted eyes on A Walk in the Woods. The memoir—a classic work of travel writing if ever there was one—hilariously describes Bill Bryson’s attempt(s) in the mid-1990s to hike the Appalachian Trail—a 2,200-mile stretch from Georgia to Maine.

After weeks of hiking, Bryson and his companion, Stephen Katz, arrive in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At a local outfitter’s, they spot a 4-foot map of the Appalachian Trail and, eager to measure their progress, examine the lower half of the map. They discover that their trek, in its entirety, covers barely two inches.

In Bryson’s words,

One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.

Instead of feeling defeated, Bryson and Katz celebrate their liberation from a self-imposed obligation. They were, they reasoned, left to select the sections of the AT they wanted to hike, and to enjoy the journey. “A whole dimension of drudgery,” he wrote, “—the tedious, mad, really quite pointless business of stepping over every inch of rocky ground between Georgia and Maine—had been removed.”

Recognizing their limitations—and reining in ambitions run amok—freed them from the weight of a burden they didn’t even realize they carried. (They were, in all likelihood, too distracted by the 40-pound burdens that were their hiking packs.)

Today, I am recognizing my limitations, reining in my ambitions, and removing the weight of a burden that is simultaneously weighing me down and blocking my path.

Oh, I’m still going to read all 100 Greatest Books of All Time. That’s what this Challenge has been about all along, and I’m as determined as ever to meet it, shake its hand, and take a selfie or two with matching duck faces and a flattering filter.

But I’m not going to write long-form reviews of every last title on the List.

This blog has steadily overtaken the time and energy I intended to devote to reading—and as much as I love it, something’s got to give. The blog was meant to accompany the Challenge, not become one of its own. And as my only obligation is to myself, I think it’s time I eased up a little.

Since—for now, at least—I hate the idea of stopping entirely, I’m just going to cut back. I’ve begun preparing a series of “Quick Reviews” of those novels I don’t feel inclined or equipped to critique more thoroughly. The first set is scheduled to go up in the near-ish future at something o’clock.

The likelihood of anyone caring is, I realize, microscopic. And therein lies my point. So here I go, on a trail ever upward but a little less steep, through a forest with a few extra resting places. I have 31 books left and a fresh pair of boots.

Happy reading to me, and to you.

I May or May Not—No, Wait, I Definitely and Doubtlessly—Have a Huge Crush on a 63-year-old

Remember when I tried to sell you all on Nick Hornby?

Well, consider this my official sales pitch for Bill Bryson, travel* writer to the stars. Hilarious, astute, and terribly, wonderfully relatable, Bill Bryson is an exceptional travel companion, a discerning guide on adventures both far and near, and a cautionary tale (in all the best ways).

*He’s also written on a diverse list of non-fiction topics like science. I couldn’t figure out a clever way to work that in, though.

I’ve only read a few of his books, but only because I’m saving and savoring them with as much restraint as I am capable of. I can’t bear the thought that, eventually, he will die—probably before I do—leaving a finite bibliography behind him, and that at some point in the future, I will finish reading every last word he ever penned.

Earlier this week, I began reading A Walk in the Woods, one of his most beloved travelogues, in preparation for the soon-to-be-released movie version starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson. The book is so funny, and charming, and warmly written that I catch myself daydreaming about what my own eventual hypothetical hike along the Appalachian Trail will would be like.

The point is: Read Bill Bryson as much and as often as you can. He’s like a lollipop for the soul. And if you don’t believe me, I dare you not to laugh at any of the excerpts below:

From I’m a Stranger Here Myself:

‎For reasons I cannot begin to understand, when I was about eight years old my parents gave me a pair of skis for Christmas. I went outside, strapped them on, and stood in a racing crouch, but nothing happened. This is because there are no hills in Iowa. 

Also from Stranger:

The other day I called my computer helpline, because I needed to be made to feel ignorant by someone much younger than me.

From The Mother Tongue:

It was the practice of aggrieved citizens at that time to scratch a curse on a lead tablet and toss it with a muttered plea for vengeance into the spring. The curses were nothing if not heartfelt. A typical one went: ‘Docimedes has lost two gloves and asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his minds and his eyes.’ 

From In a Sunburned Country:

It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect.

And, finally, from A Walk in the Woods:

Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.