Top positive review
A masterpiece worthy of exulting the venerable Appalachian Trail
Reviewed in the United States on April 2, 2019
I am an avid reader. Yes, folks, I'm that annoying person who reads while standing in line, and even at red lights. I once finished an entire novel sitting in a doctor's waiting room-- but perhaps that says more about the doctor than it does about my reading abilities. haha. I also hold advanced degrees in both English and writing. I know good writing when I read it, and I have also stumbled wearily through books shoved at me from the hands of well meaning friends: "we know you love to read. Read this one and let me know what you think of it." Gah. Please don't be that person to your friends-- the frightful book foister. Please, I beg of you. Don't be that person. Don't make me flee from your presence like unfiled taxes fleeing from the IRS, to avoid said horrible book dumping.
Tiresome celebrity biographies, reminiscent of a painful 9th grade essay, sold merely because a famous name is on it . . . let's admit it-- what can they really "tell all" about, when their lives are already a literal (equally wearying) open book?
Romance novels, with a close up of a muscular hand clutching a lacy red bustier on the front, which after several dreary pages makes me feel like ripping it, literally, in half, and throwing the book away. Cookbooks-- there are a few decent ones in this "here read this!" genre, but many of them are thrown together to make a sale, and let's face it-- when is the last time you actually made a recipe from an actual cookbook? Exactly. You throw it in the bag for the beach, thumb through a few pages while smearing on sunscreen, and then toss it in the 'ole bookshelf when you get home, where it is destined to live for the rest of readless, purgatorial eternity.
A friend recommended "A Walk in the Woods." Sigh, I thought. Another recommendation. I admire the "woods" from a distance, but I fear insects, snakes, vermin, rodents, and even the casual snap of a twig within their clutches. I do not camp. I do not eat camp food. I prefer to have my meals without a side of food poisoning. So you'd be right in thinking that my reaction was something like, "Ugh another referral. I will have less in common with this book than a Protestant would have with the Pope." I started it grudgingly, expecting to do the obligatory dragging of my eyes across the page until it was finally, relievingly, replete.
Boy was I in for a surprise.
Within the first few pages I surprised myself by chuckling. Then laughing. Then outright, from the gut, throwing back my head and howling. I stayed up until almost 1 AM that first night, devouring chapter after chapter, even though I had to be up early for work the next day. I just couldn't put it down. The writing is refreshingly honest-- at once thoughtful, hilarious, sarcastic, and downright well done. This is not the scribbling of a celebrity trying to sell books. This is the tale of someone who has truly lived a once in a lifetime kind of all-American experience. His observations about the conditions of the trails, the miraculous preservation efforts made by volunteers on the trail for decades, and even his views on life, are inspirational. His descriptions of the kooky characters, the beautiful, sweeping vistas of untouched wilderness that he discovered as he rounded thousands of wearying bends in the never-ending trails . . . it's magic. Pure magic. I can almost close my eyes and see it, so vivid are his descriptions of the meadows, the wildflowers, the soft sighing of the trees in the quiet breeze.
I've always said that the best kind of writing contains three elements. First, it is relevant/relate-able to all. It takes an incredible author to take a subject about which I have little interest (camping), and make it relevant and interesting to me, yet he does. Second, it should have humor-- not the "polite chuckle" kind of humor, but a real, genuine, gut laughing kind of humor, hidden delightfully throughout the text, waiting to surprise you like golden treasure where you would least think to look. Third, it should have moments of piercing, beautiful clarity-- moments when you find yourself, for reasons you almost can't explain, blinking back the tears as some particularly poignant thought resonates through your very being.
Bill Bryson delivers richly on all three counts. This book ended with my feeling deliciously and completely satiated, in every way. I laughed until my sides were sore, I cried at the honest, beautiful tendrils of his story as it wrapped its beautifully written arms around my heart. I shook my head solemnly with a deep, "Mmmm, yes" at the inspirations recorded within the story as he discovered, not just the beauty of the Appalachian Trail, but the beauty of life, warmth, family, and companionship. Perhaps the beauty of America is that a little bit of the magic resides in the heart of all of us. That's the message here. And it's a darned inspirational one.
I haven't done this often, but a few times in my life a book is so wonderful-- so stupendous-- that I just can't bear to end it. So the moment I finish, I move my bookmark back to chapter 1. Not ending-- just starting again.
My bookmark is resting in chapter 1 of this one.