Last week I read A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. I normally don’t read popular books of this genre. However contrary to that statement, I have reviewed several popular “hiking” books over the past few months.
This is a good one.
THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN BOOK READERS
A while back I read in an Atlantic Monthly article that fewer and fewer Americans read books, and this includes eBooks (such as the Kindle) and even audio books. It’s a disturbing trend.
“The Pew Research Center reported last week that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audiobook while in the car. The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.”
I won’t get into what I feel is the root cause of this and what it means to the future of the country, or rather the demise of America.
I read dozens books every year. I usually get into a thematic reading binge. A few years ago I read most of Victor Hugo works, then all of John Muir’s, and then many about astronomy and cosmology. And so it goes each and every year. Some of my favorite books I go back and read again. Right now I am reading Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. It’s a book I have read every year since 1969.
Instead of watching TV, I read. I fly a lot and that is usually a good time to read. Due to my frequent flyer miles, I am upgraded to first class around 50% of the time. In first class, there is enough room to fire up my laptop and work. But the rest of the time I am stuck in the back of the flying bus, often in tight spaces made even tighter by big fat overweight obnoxious people; meaning there is no room to use a computer. So I read Kindle books on my iPad. I probably read 30 books a year on airplanes alone – often downloaded in the airport terminal as last minute impulse purchases. Such was A Walk in the Woods, downloaded in one of the terminals at DFW a week or so ago.
THE WILD EFFECT
Last December the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild was released. As was predicted, the number of people hiking the PCT because of the movie had a huge uptick in the number of people on the trail. Many are predicting the movie version of A Walk in the Woods, which will be released this week, will have the same effect on the Appalachian Trail. Will it? Probably. Is that a bad thing? Yes.
But I am not here to pontificate on that issue. It isn’t Bryson’s fault.
WHAT A WALK IN THE WOODS IS
A Walk in the Woods is set on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and is the story of two diametrically opposed friends, separated by decades, separated by different life paths, who re-connect for backpacking adventure. Bryson is accompanied by his childhood friend, Stephen Katz (a pseudonym to protect the real person) on the AT. In fact, the book borders on being a novel, as Katz becomes the literary vehicle that makes the plot work.
Most popular hiking or outdoorsy books are written by hikers trying to become writers. This one is written by a well-known and skilled writer (Bryson), who happened to spend a few months backpacking. The book isn’t about backpacking and you won’t read anything on how to use gear or even much on what kind of gear the pair used. In fact, Bryson hates discussions about gear…
“I was perched on the edge of the sleeping platform lost in a little reverie along these lines and absorbed with trying to get a small volume of water to boil— quite happy really— when one of the middle-aged guys drifted over and introduced himself as Bob. I knew with a sinking heart that we were going to talk equipment. I could just see it coming. I hate talking equipment.”
The book was published in 1998, and the two years after its release the number of thru hikers on the AT increased by 60%, versus the previous annual growth of about 10% per year.
A Walk in the Woods is about our roots in nature, how we have become disconnected, and about many of modern civilization’s faults. It’s about the joy of merely walking, how it is better walking in the woods, and the fact most people would rather drive 600 feet to work than simply walking. It’s about a trail that can give us a glimpse of American history, should we want to learn, and Bryson provides us the historical background, not only the background of the trail, but historical events in America as he travels on and around the trail. Bryson also gives us a thorough lesson in geology. Sounds like boring reading, but it isn’t – about the time a passage on history or geology starts to go long winded, there is Katz with some witty thoughts or comical antic.
In between all these historic and scientific facts are Bryson and his sidekick Katz and Katz is the comic relief that not only makes the story interesting, he makes it hilarious. Here we have the idealistic Don Quixote (Bryson) and the down to earth practical Sancho Panza (Katz). It’s Frick and Frack, Tom and Jerry.
WHAT IT ISN’T
It’s not a trail journal (thank god). It’s not a trail guide (thank you, Jesus). It’s not a gear guide. It isn’t about backpacking at all.
A WALK IN THE WOODS, THE MOVIE
I read Wild and I hated it. I didn’t see the movie. Even when it became available for free on my TV, I didn’t watch it.
I will watch A Walk in the Woods, even though the movie critics don’t seem to like it (usually an indicator of a potentially good movie).
Robert Redford plays Bryson. I don’t know if that is a good match. We shall see. Katz is played by Nick Nolte – perfect!
I’m looking forward to it.