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Reading Buddies Discussion: “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson

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Hello reading buddies! I hope you’re all enjoying A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I’ve been listening to William Roberts read this chronicle of hiking the Appalachian Trail on audio, and so far, so good. Roberts reads at a steady clip with good inflection, and it’s an absorbing book. I’m smack dab in the middle, though for most of this post it won’t matter as long as you’ve gotten a little way into the book. I’ll warn of spoilers if I get too specific!

It’s been years since I’ve read anything by Bryson. In those intervening years, I’d forgotten how fantastic he is at blending science, history, pop culture, and personal experience into a hybrid of memoir and straight nonfiction. He shifts around just enough to keep me interested. I find myself learning all kinds of fascinating (if occasionally mildly outdated) things without ever getting bored. Bryson is, of course, a funny man, and I find myself snickering quite a lot, but I get the feeling that even without his keen sense of humor he’d be able to write books I’d be happy to read.

Listening to A Walk in the Woods has set straight my mental picture of what hiking the Appalachian Trail entails. For instance:

  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (cover)I never really thought about just how much stuff you’d have to have to take with you for months and months of hiking. I loved the scene at the beginning of the book where Bryson is at the store trying to purchase equipment, though I was mildly appalled by how much he needed!
  • I always imagined a trail through such an expanse of wilderness wilderness would be lonely and isolated, always. Granted, it is, for long stretches, but hikers seem to see one another much more often than I’d assumed.
  • I was surprised by the camaraderie shared between hikers sharing shelters, camping together, or even passing one another on the trail. The shared experience of hiking the AT, I suppose, provides the groundwork for a (usually) friendly relationship.
  • I had no idea there were such frequent opportunities for hikers to go into town for a bath, a nice meal, and a good night’s sleep in a real bed.

I’m pretty sure I’ll never hike the whole trail, even though several people I know are seriously interested. Maybe a day or two…maybe. Have you hiked or thought about hiking the whole or partial trail?

For those of you who are at least halfway through (kind of a SPOILER! if you haven’t): What do you think of Bryson and Katz’s decision not to hike the whole trail? I can understand why they skip parts, but I think if I was in their situation, I’d feel like I had to walk the whole thing.

If you’re reading or have read A Walk in the Woods, feel free to share your thoughts and/or pose questions for other participants here. Please be careful to warn of spoilers in your comments! I’d also love to know if you’ve discussed the book on your blog so that I can link to your post in the wrap-up post, two weeks down the line.

Ready…set…discuss!

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  • http://perduedansleslivres.blogspot.com virginie

    I just got my copy of “A walk in the woods” a couple of hours ago (from the mail) and have only read three chapters so far!
    I never read a book by Bill Bryson before and I never really hiked. So this reading is a complete discovery. Considering walking the Appalachian Trail really impresses me and, like you, I am appalled by the quantities of equipment needed for such an adventure. The theme is quite interesting and I like the humorous tone of Bill Bryson.
    I’ll get back to your post later!

    • Erin

      I’m impressed you started reading it so soon after its arrival! I hope you’re enjoying your first foray into Bryson and hiking :-)

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I have only read one Bryson book (Neither Here Nor There) but man, is that dude funny! I kept following my husband around reading little bits of it aloud to him and after awhile, he was really annoyed. I recently bought my uncle one of his books for Christmas, hoping that he would like Bryson as much as I did, and the last time I spoke with him, he said he was really enjoying it. I need to read this one as well, and am glad to hear you are having a good time with it!

    • Erin

      Haha, I read bits of Bryson to anyone who will listen, too! Though my husband has read pretty much everything Bryson has written, so I think he just tunes me out :-) According to him, A Walk in the Woods is well-known classic Bryson, so I’m glad I’ve finally gotten to it. How fun that your uncle now enjoys Bryson, too!

  • http://www.joyweesemoll.com/ Joy Weese Moll

    Still looking forward to this, but I’m snowed in and don’t have a copy of the book yet. More later!

    • Erin

      Oh no! I assume you’ve plenty of other good reading material nearby. Hope you’re un-snowed in soon.

  • http://www.lifewithbooks.com Jenners

    I read this ages ago … I’ve a HUGE Bryson fan for exactly the reason you mentionted … he mixes all kinds of things together, blends in humor and you have yourself entertainment and education … the very best kind. Enjoy the trip!

    • Erin

      He really is talented! It’s taken reading some similar books that aren’t nearly as well executed to realize just how great Bryson is. I’m looking forward to reading some of his other stuff now!

  • http://www.eclectic-eccentric.com Trisha

    I am still not quite halfway through yet, so still not to the “monumental decision” portion yet. I have to say that I am really enjoying Bryson’s writing style; it is easy to get immersed in the story. I love the historical inclusions and actually wish there was a bit more of that. Katz is killing me as a “character”; he seems so ill suited to the hike. I am interested to see where Bryson goes for the next 150 pages.

    • Erin

      Have you read other Bryson, or is this your first? I agree, Bryson is masterful at blending all kinds of fact and story together. And seriously, what is Katz doing on that trail?? I can’t believe he hasn’t quit…and that he even wanted to go in the first place!

  • http://perduedansleslivres.blogspot.com virginie

    CAUTION – SPOILERS!
    So here I am, halfway of the book. I just finished part 1 yesterday! So far, I am really enjoying this reading, it’s interesting and funny. Historical and political-economical considerations are absolutely not boring.
    And the description of some hikers are hilarious (their encounter with Mary Ellen is really funny). I think Bryson and Katz are both good-tempered characters. They get along well, despite their differences. I was really wondering how Bill Bryson would cope with Katz!
    I understand their decision of skipping a part of the trail, as they had been through a lot of difficulties in their last days of walking. They were not really physically prepared (especially Katz) and quite discouraged when they found out that they had just walk a tiny portion of the trail is the past few weeks I guess they made the right choice for them and therefore keep faith and enthusiasm for the rest of the hike.

    • Erin

      I loved Mary Ellen! Bryson has a way of describing people, doesn’t he? Not always kind, but always easy to imagine. I was surprised, too, by how well Katz and Bryson end up getting along!

      Good point about how skipping part of the trail allows them to keep up their faith and enthusiasm. I’m not sure I could be so close and not do the whole trail, but who knows how I’d feel if I were actually in their shoes.

  • http://www.joyweesemoll.com/ Joy Weese Moll

    I got the book a couple of days ago and I’ve read through six chapters. I’m enjoying it a lot!

    But to start discussion, I have a problems/question.

    At first, I really had trouble getting passed how ill prepared Bryson and Katz were for this trip. When I was younger, I thought about doing something like walking the AT. My plans always began with something like: I’ll work my way up to walking an hour every weekday. And, then, I’ll start hiking nearby parks on weekends. When I’m comfortable with that, I’ll start hiking in the state parks, do some overnight trips.

    Of course, the plan always failed in the first week or so and I never got any closer to walking the Appalachian Trail. And I don’t have any great stories to tell about the attempt. So, I’m wondering if it takes doing things like this with less preparation than one would like, maybe a lot less. Is it better to take the adventure with woeful lack of preparation or wait until you’re fully prepared even if that never happens?

    • Erin

      I was really surprised by how casually they just started hiking, too! It seemed odd to me. I’d have taken your approach. Maybe we need to plan less and just go for it!

  • http://perduedansleslivres.blogspot.com virginie

    Hello Erin! I finished reading the book yesterday. This was a very enjoyable reading experience. I am leaving for a week vacation today but have scheduled my post, which will be published on Feb, 18th!

    • Erin

      Thanks for setting your post to be scheduled! I hope your vacation is/was wonderful!

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  • http://www.litchick.typepad.com melanie

    This was my first Bryson attempt and I thought I would love his wit. Apparently I am the lone weirdo who finds his wit annoying and snotty. Maybe there is too much Seinfeld-esque humor floating around for this to feel original (since I’m late to his writing).I thought he was rather mean at the expense of others, never himself. And I think that funny people at the core are good natured and able to laugh at themselves. I didn’t get that impression here. I am quite surprised by my own reaction because sarcasm is my default, and I am not known for being extra sensitive.
    I did appreciate the history of the AT(not so much his editorializing)and the book gave me a good picture of what a large scale hiking trip entails. When they realized they had only traveled 2 inches of the map I felt discouraged for them, and thought their decision to skip a section of the trail showed maturity.

    • http://www.joyweesemoll.com/ Joy Weese Moll

      Melanie–

      I had some trouble with his humor, too. In particular, the passages where he was expressing a kind of fear of the people living in Appalachia as being ignorant, xenophobic, and incestuous. That seemed like the kind of stereotype that we wouldn’t tolerate if said about other groups, so why are mountain people an exception? I kept hoping that he was going to meet and describe a mountain person who transcended the stereotype, but it didn’t happen.

      –Joy

      • Erin

        Joy, that’s a good example of the “humor” directed toward other people that made me cringe a little. The humor I enjoyed was in the rest of Bryson’s writing, at the way he described certain events or places or experiences and the particular wording he chose. He does seem pretty coarse and shallow toward a lot of people, which is disappointing.

    • Erin

      You have a really good point about the nature of Bryson’s humor. I do think he has a way with words and can come up with some really humorous turns of phrase. However, he is kind of mean toward other people sometimes, and I did cringe at times. I’m not at all a fan of Seinfeld, so I can’t speak to that comparison! I can see what you’re saying about Bryson’s humor coming at the expense of others (but never himself), but I also see a different kind of humor that I definitely enjoyed.