Bill Bryson

Author of A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail and 30+ Books

Bill Bryson

365 Quotes

Born in 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa, William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, OBE, FRS settled in England in 1977 and worked as a journalist until he became a full-time writer. He spent many years living in North Yorkshire with his English wife and four children. He and his family moved to New Hampshire in America for a couple of years, but they have now returned to live in the UK. Bill Brysons, the hilarious first travel book in The Lost Continent, chronicle... d a trip around the small town of America in his mothers Chevy. It was followed by an account of his first trip around Europe, Neither Here Nor There. Other travel books include the massive bestseller Notes From a Small Island, who won the 2003 World Book Day National Poll to find the book that best represented modern England, followed by A Walk in the Woods (in which Stephen Katz, his travel companion from Neither Here Nor There, made a welcome reappearance), Notes From a Big Country and Down Under. He turned his attention to science in his final book. With critical acclaim, A Short History of Nearly Everything was lauded and became a huge bestseller. Before winning the Aventis Prize for Science Books and the Descartes Science Communication Prize, it was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. His next book, The Thunderbolt Kid's Life and Times, is a memoir of America's growth in the 1950s, featuring another appearance by his old friend Stephen Katz. October 8 sees the release of Nearly Everything's Really Short History.READ MORE

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Before, prior to. There is no difference between these two except length and a certain affectedness on the part of 'prior to.' To paraphrase Bernstein, if you would use 'posterior to' instead of 'after,' then by all means use 'prior to' instead of 'before.

I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.

18th century scientists, the French in particular, seldom did things simply if an absurdly demanding alternative was available.

We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.

As my father always used to tell me, 'You see, son, there's always someone in the world worse off than you.' And I always used to think, 'So?

Even Scientific American entered the fray with an article proposing that the person portrayed in the famous Martin Droeshout engraving might actually be--I weep to say it--Elizabeth I.

Is there anything, apart from a really good chocolate cream pie and receiving a large unexpected cheque in the post, to beat finding yourself at large in a foreign city on a fair spring evening, loafing along unfamiliar streets in the long shadows of a lazy sunset, pausing to gaze in shop windows or at some church or lovely square or tranquil stretch of quayside, hesitating at street corners to decide whether that cheerful and homy restaurant you will remember fondly for years is likely to lie down this street or that one? I just love it. I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city.

Eating in Sweden is really just a series of heartbreaks.

Beulah has a husband?'
I know. It's a miracle. There can't be more than two people on the planet who'd be willing to sleep with her, and here we are both in the same town.

Protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality.

Consider the Lichen. Lichens are just about the hardiest visible organisms on Earth, but the least ambitious.

It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be , is every bit as strong as ours-arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additions existence. Life, in short just wants to be.

My particular dread--the vivid possibility that left me staring at tree shadows on the bedroom ceiling night after night--was having to lie in a small tent, alone in an inky wilderness, listening to a foraging bear outside and wondering what its intentions were. I was especially riveted by an amateur photograph in Herrero's book, taken late at night by a camper with a flash at a campground out West. The photograph caught four black bears as they puzzled over a suspended food bag. The bears were clearly startled but not remotely alarmed by the flash. It was not the size or demeanor of the bears that troubled me--they looked almost comically nonaggressive, like four guys who had gotten a Frisbee caught up a tree--but their numbers. Up to that moment it had not occurred to me that bears might prowl in parties. What on earth would I do if
four
bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children's parties--I daresay it would even give a merry toot--and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.

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. ...It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as the players-more if they are moderately restless.

When the poet Paul Valery once asked Albert Einstein if he kept a notebook to record his ideas, Einstein looked at him with mild but genuine surprise. "Oh, that's not necessary," he replied . "It's so seldom I have one.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely- make that miraculously- fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, everyone of your forbears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from it's life quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result - evetually, astoundingly, and all to briefly- in you.

I was heading to Nebraska. Now there's a sentence you don't want to say too often if you can possibly help it.

The number of people on whose cooperative efforts your eventual existence depends has risen to approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, which is several thousand times the total number of people who have ever lived.

It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.

Cavendish is a book in himself. Born into a life of sumptuous privilege- his grandfathers were dukes, respectively, of Devonshire and Kent- he was the most gifted English scientist of his age, but also the strangest. He suffered, in the words of one of his few biographers, from shyness to a "degree bordering on disease." Any human contact was for him a source of the deepest discomfort.
Once he opened his door to find an Austrian admirer, freshly arrived from Vienna, on the front step. Excitedly the Austrian began to babble out praise. For a few moments Cavendish received the compliments as if they were blows from a blunt object and then, unable to take any more, fled down the path and out the gate, leaving the front door wide open. It was some hours before he could be coaxed back to the property. Even his housekeeper communicated with him by letter.
Although he did sometimes venture into society- he was particularly devoted to the weekly scientific soirees of the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks- it was always made clear to the other guests that Cavendish was on no account to be approached or even looked at. Those who sought his views were advised to wander into his vicinity as if by accident and to "talk as it were into vacancy." If their remarks were scientifically worthy they might receive a mumbled reply, but more often than not they would hear a peeved squeak (his voice appears to have been high pitched) and turn to find an actual vacancy and the sight of Cavendish fleeing for a more peaceful corner.

If you imagine the 4,500-bilion-odd years of Earth's history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 A.M., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost 8:30 in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes. Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna first seen by Reginald Sprigg in Australia. At 9:04 P.M. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 P.M. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow.
Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10:24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 P.M. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight. The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant. Throughout this greatly speeded-up day continents slide about and bang together at a clip that seems positively reckless. Mountains rise and melt away, ocean basins come and go, ice sheets advance and withdraw. And throughout the whole, about three times every minute, somewhere on the planet there is a flash-bulb pop of light marking the impact of a Manson-sized meteor or one even larger. It's a wonder that anything at all can survive in such a pummeled and unsettled environment. In fact, not many things do for long.

There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

If you can imagine a man having a vasectomy without anesthetic to the sound of frantic sitar-playing, you will have some idea of what popular Turkish music is like.

I glanced at my watch - it was two minutes to eleven; just right for lunch when and if we ever got to the godforsaken lodge - and took some comfort from the thought that at least I still had my wits about me. Or at least I felt as if I did. Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to recognize that he was confused. Ergo, if you know that you are not confused then you are not confused. Unless, it suddenly occurred to me - and here was an arresting notion - unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion. Or even an advanced symptom. Who could tell? For all I knew I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state. That's the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it's gone, it's too late to get it back.

Life just wants to be; but it doesn't want to be much.

It was the kind of pure, undiffused light that can only come from a really hot blue sky, the kind that makes even a concrete highway painful to behold and turns every distant reflective surface into a little glint of flame. Do you know how sometimes on very fine days the sun will shine with a particular intensity that makes the most mundane objects in the landscape glow with an unusual radiance, so that buildings and structures you normally pass without a glance suddenly become arresting, even beautiful? Well, they seem to have that light in Australia nearly all the time.

A third...candidate for Shakespearean authorship was Christopher Marlowe. He was the right age (just two months older than Shakespeare), had the requisite talent, and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work.

Isn´t it strange how wealth is always wasted on the rich?

I was especially riveted by an amateur photograph in Herrero’s book, taken late at night by a camper with a flash at a campground out West. The photograph caught four black bears as they puzzled over a suspended food bag. The bears were clearly startled but not remotely alarmed by the flash. It was not the size or demeanor of the bears that troubled me — they looked almost comically unagressive, like four guys who had gotten a Frisbee caught up a tree — but their numbers. Up to that moment it had not occurred to me that bears might prowl in parties. What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties — I daresay it would even give a merry toot — and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.

I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.

Physicists are atoms' way of thinking about atoms.

I love everything about motels. I can't help myself. I still get excited every time I slip a key into a motel room door and fling it open.

Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding.

I turned to my own bunk and examined it with a kind of appalled fascination. If the mattress stains were anything to go by, a previous user had not so much suffered from incontinence as rejoiced in it. He had evidently included the pillow in his celebrations.

On the dashboard of our family car is a shallow indentation about the size of a paperback book. If you are looking for somewhere to put your sunglasses or spare change, it is the obvious place, and it works extremely well, I must say, so long as the car is not actually moving. However, as soon as you put the car in motion ... everything slides off ... It can hold nothing that has not been nailed to it. So I ask you: what then is it for?

... it occurred to me that never again would he be seven years, one month and six days old, so we had better catch these moments while we can.

When I awoke it was daylight. The inside of my tent was coated in a curious flaky rime, which I realized after a moment was all of my nighttime snores, condensed and frozen and pasted to the fabric, as if into a scrapbook of respiratory memories.

I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.

Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn't receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.

When cells are no longer needed, they die with what can only be called great dignity. They take down all the struts and buttresses that hold them together and quietly devour their component parts. The process is known as apoptosis or programmed cell death. Every day billions of your cells die for your benefit and billions of others clean up the mess. Cells can also die violently- for instance, when infected- but mostly they die because they are told to. Indeed, if not told to live- if not given some kind of active instruction from another cell- cells automatically kill themselves. Cells need a lot of reassurance.
When, as occasionally happens, a cell fails to expire in the prescribed manner, but rather begins to divide and proliferate wildly, we call the result cancer. Cancer cells are really just confused cells. Cells make this mistake fairly regularly, but the body has elaborate mechanisms for dealing with it. It is only very rarely that the process spirals out of control. On average, humans suffer one fatal malignancy for each 100 million billion cell divisions. Cancer is bad luck in every possible sense of the term.

Your pillow alone may be home to 40 million bed mites. (To them your head is just one large oily bon-bon). And don't think a clean pillow-case will make a difference... Indeed, if your pillow is six years old--which is apparently about the average age for a pillow--it has been estimated that one-tenth of its weight will be made up of sloughed skin, living mites, dead mites and mite dung.

The dandelion was long popularly known as the 'pissabed' because of its supposed diuretic properties, and other names in everyday use included 'mare's fart', 'naked ladies', 'twitch-ballock', 'hounds-piss', 'open arse', and 'bum-towel'.

In this he was like most Midwesterners. Directions are very important to them. They have an innate need to be oriented, even in their anecdotes. Any story related by a Midwesterner will wander off at some point into a thicket of interior monologue along the lines of "We were staying at a hotel that was eight blocks northeast of the state capital building. Come to think of it, it was northwest. And I think it was probably more like nine blocks. And this woman without any clothes on, naked as the day she was born except for a coonskin cap, came running at us from the southwest... or was it the southeast?" If there are two Midwesterns present and they both witnessed the incident, you can just about write off the anecdote because they will spend the rest of the afternoon arguing points of the compass and will never get back to the original story. You can always tell a Midwestern couple in Europe because they will be standing on a traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection looking at a windblown map and arguing over which way is west. European cities, with their wandering streets and undisciplined alleys, drive Midwesterners practically insane.

People in the West like to shoot things. When they first got to the West they shot buffalo. Once there were 70 million buffalo on the plains and then the people of the West started blasting away at them. Buffalo are just cows with big heads. If you've ever looked a cow in the face and seen the unutterable depths of trust and stupidity that lie within, you will be able to guess how difficult it must have been for people in the West to track down buffalo and shoot them to pieces. By 1895, there were only 800 buffalo left, mostly in zoos and touring Wild West shows. With no buffalo left to kill, Westerners started shooting Indians. Between 1850 and 1890 they reduced the number of Indians in America from two million to 90,000.
Nowadays, thank goodness, both have made a recovery. Today there are 30,000 buffalo and 300,000 Indiands, and of course you are not allowed to shoot either, so all the Westerners have left to shoot at are road signs and each other, both of which they do rather a lot. There you have a capsule history of the West.

The taipan is the one to watch out for. It is the most poisonous snake on Earth, with a lunge so swift and a venom so potent that your last mortal utterance is likely to be: "I say, is that a sn--

We may be only one of millions of advanced civilizations. Unfortunately, space being spacious, the average distance between any two of these civilizations is reckoned to be at least two hundred light-years, which is a great deal more than merely saying it makes it sound. It means for a start that even if these beings know we are here and are somehow able to see us in their telescopes, they're watching light that left Earth two hundred years ago. So, they're not seeing you and me. They're watching the French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson and people in silk stockings and powdered wigs--people who don't know what an atom is, or a gene, and who make their electricity by rubbing a rod of amber with a piece of fur and think that's quite a trick. Any message we receive from them is likely to begin "Dear Sire," and congratulate us on the handsomness of our horses and our mastery of whale oil. Two hundred light-years is a distance so far beyond us as to be, well, just beyond us.

The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there is nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights to take away from a morning's outing , but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I'm happy.
Now if you will excuse me I have to drive to Vermont and collect some mail from a Mr. Bubba.

As a rule of thumb, I would submit that if you need to call your floss provider, for any reason, you are probably not ready for this level of oral hygiene.

Do you like that?" I'll say in surprise since it doesn't seem like her type of thing, and she'll look at me as if I'm mad.
That!?" She'll say, "No, it's hideous"
Then why on earth," I always want to say, "did you walk all the way over there to touch it?" but of course...I have learned to say nothing when shopping because no matter what you say... Read more - "I'm hungry", "I'm bored", "My feet are tired", "Yes, that one looks nice on you too", "Well, have both of them", "Oh, for fuck sake", "Can't we just go home", "Monsoon? Again? Oh for fuck sake", "then why on earth did you walk all the way over there to touch it?" - it doesn't pay, so I say nothing.

As the saying goes, it takes all kinds to make the world go around, though perhaps some shouldn't go quite so far around it as others.

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