The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

by Bill Bryson

Paperback, 2001




William Morrow Paperbacks (2001), Edition: Reprint, 2001, 384 pages


'I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to' And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn't hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14,000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. He discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. Bryson's acclaimed first success, The Lost Continentis a classic of travel literature - hilariously, stomach-achingly, funny, yet tinged with heartache - and the book that first staked Bill Bryson's claim as the most beloved writer of his generation.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member edgeworth
Bill Bryson left his hometown of Des Moines as soon as he was old enough, emigrating to the United Kingdom and settling down as a journalist. He returned to America some fifteen years later to make a grand tour of the country, avoiding major tourist attractions and grand sights and instead exploring small town American life.

As one would expect from any Bryson book, The Lost Continent is very readable and very funny - yet it's also strikingly sad. The title refers to how much America had changed since Bryson left, and how it was lost to him - consumed by generic strip malls and franchise stores, and populated by people who liked it that way.

It was pretty well an ideal town - one of those rare American places where you wouldn't need a car. From almost any house it would be a short and pleasant stroll to the library and post office and stores. My brother and his wife told me that a developer was about to build a big shopping mall outside town and most of the bigger merchants were going to move out there. People, it appeared, didn't want to stroll to do their shopping. They actually wanted to get in their cars and drive to the edge of town, where they could then park and walk a similar distance across a flat, treeless parking lot. That is how America goes shopping and they wanted to be part of it. So now downtown Bloomsburg is likely to become semi-derelict and another nice little town will be lost. So the world progresses.

This struck a chord with me. What I loved about Seoul was that I could walk out my front door and be less than three hundred metres away from a grocery store, restaurant, bar, bank, pharmacy, fast food place and subway station, as opposed to my current home in an industrial Australian suburb where I have to get in my car and drive five kilometres to the shopping centre.

But Bryson isn't just railing against the destruction wrought by car-driven urban planning and unchecked consumerism; he regularly cites statistics on crime and education which suggests America is beginning to decline. This book is from 1987. Had Bryson visited today he probably would have had a brain aneurysm.

The sentiment is not confined to America. Bryson regularly savages the notion, still in full force today, that cost-efficiency is more important than anything else.

I left Santa Fe and drove west along Interstate 40. This used to be Route 66. Everybody loved Route 66. People used to write songs about it. But it was only two lanes wide, not at all suitable for the space age, hopelessly inadequate for people in motor homes, and every fifty miles or so you would pass through a little town where you might encounter a stop sign or a traffic light - what a drag! - so they buried it under the desert and built a new superhighway which shoots across the landscape like a four-lane laser and doesn't stop for anything, even mountains. So something else that was nice and pleasant is gone forever because it wasn't practical - like passenger trains and milk in bottles and corner shops and Burma Shave signs. And now it's happening in Britain, too. They are taking away all the nice things there because they are impractical, as if that were reason enough - the red phone-boxes, the pound note, those open London buses that you can leap on and off. There is almost no experience in life that makes you feel more suave than jumping on or off a moving London bus. But they aren't practical. They require two men (one to drive and one to stop thugs from kicking the crap out of the Pakistani gentleman in the back) and that is uneconomical, so they will have to go. And before long there will be no more milk in bottles delivered to the doorsteps or sleepy rural pubs and the countryside will be mostly shopping centres and theme parks. Forgive me. I don't mean to get upset. But yyou are taking my world away from me, piece by piece, and sometimes it just pisses me off. Sorry.

Part of this can no doubt be chalked up to an ageing man's nostalgia, but I think it is true - in every country, not just America - that things aren't what they used to be. As an example, all the old neighbourhoods of Melbourne are full of lovely laneways and colonial townhouses and European trees and shopping streets. Meanwhile the newer neighbourhoods, like the one I live in, are full of detached brick cubes and no trees and shopping centres enclosed by carparks. The really new ones, at the very edge of any city, are full of garish lavender and maroon McMansions, and these are the worst neighbourhoods of all. The newer a tram model is, the uglier it is. Federation Square (opened 2002) is the hideous counterpoint to Flinders Street Station (opened 1910). You can't have campfires in summer anymore. Ferry routes all over the world are closing down because of budget airlines. The world is definitely losing itself.

This is a good book. It cops a lot of flak for being "cynical" or "negative," which is rubbish. First of all, Bryson is honest, and is making an honest critique of modern America. Secondly, it is the job of a travel writer to have a bad time. Happy memories and good experiences generally aren't interesting to read about - and they certainly are't funny. Humour is Bryson's stock in trade, and this would be a much less enjoyable book if he wasn't constantly snarky and acidic.
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LibraryThing member stacyinthecity
This is the story of a man who travels the United States in the 1980s and records his observations with his sardonic wit. When viewed strictly in this sense, I was very disappointed. His comments about the people and places he visits are biting, harsh, and downright mean. Even when I agreed with him (and I did, a lot, especially his dismay at the lost places of his youth, the urban sprawl and same stores, the same roadside fast food joints, and so forth), it was at times, too much. About the only thing that made me avoid putting down the book altogether was that he was frequently insulting to himself - at least he is an equal opportunity offender.

Compare it to Blue Highways, a classic book of traveling across the country in search of a people, a place, and oneself. That author wrote with genuine affection for all of the people he met and places he visited.

However, the book is not about a man's trip around the US. It is about a man's search for home. He lived abroad for years, only to come home and find his homeland has changed dramatically. To come home and find your neighborhood changed, your grandmother's house demolished, etc, must be quite a shocker. Not that I excuse him for the nastiness, but it does make it easier to understand. It must be part of his grieving process. Though I have a sneaking suspicion he wrote it for a non US audience and this book is him making fun of us behind our backs.

When I put aside his disdain for all the people he met along the way, I found the book decent. I liked hearing about places I've been, and though I didn't care for the way he expressed it, I mourned along with him for the bits of lost American culture.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Shortly after the death of his father, Bryson embarks on a cross-country road trip, visiting small towns throughout America. He’s an Iowa native, but after living in England for decades he wanted to reacquaint himself with the USA.

I’ve enjoyed most of Bryson’s other books more than this one. It still retains his acidic sense of humor and conversational writing style, but it’s much more cynical. With some of his other work he is simply observing a place, whether it’s the Appalachian Trail or a foreign country, for the first time. In this one, he’s re-visiting places he vacationed as a child. I think it’s unlikely any place could live up to his sepia-toned memories and he’s incredibly disappointed by how boring or dirty the cities have become.

Barring a few exceptions (like the universally revered Grand Canyon); he is completely disenchanted with America. It didn’t take long to tire of his routine in each new town: see touristy museum or park, check into cheap hotel, get dinner at cheap local diner, drink beers in hotel room while watching Mr. Ed, and repeat the following day. I wanted him to talk to people or at least make an effort to see more than one cheesy tourist trap. Don’t get me wrong, there are some funny bits, but it’s no where near his normal level of hilarity.

I will definitely keep reading Bryson’s books in the future, because he normally cracks me up. I’ll chalk this one up to an off-day for the writer and instead I’d recommend you read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley for a similar premise with a much better result.

“That is the great, seductive thing about America – the people always get what they want, right now, whether it is good for them or not. There is something deeply worrying, and awesomely irresponsible, about this endless self-gratification.”

“America has never quite grasped that you can live in a place without making it ugly, that beauty doesn’t have to be confined behind fences, as if a national park were a sort of zoo for nature.”
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
There's a tangible sense of loss in Bryson's writing here. Like Alex Kerr in "Lost Japan," here is somebody who appreciates what a country can offer, and is saddened when such offerings dwindle and are lost.

As Bryson travels cross-country in search of the romantic appeal his father felt for small-town Americana, he realises that this is not a country people really want to visit; nor is it a country prepared to welcome visitors.… (more)
LibraryThing member mels_71
I started reading this book but I really didn't like it. His observations were funny to begin with but after 40 pages it got a bit wearing, by 70 pages it just felt like elitist sneering. I haven't travelled round the US so I don't have any personal experience here. I filed this as read, although I didn't finish it and I hardly ever stop reading a book once I've started. Can't really recomment it.… (more)
LibraryThing member jddunn
Ugh. So whiny & snobbish & entitled & reactionary. There are fragments of a good travelogue peeking out through all the gloom, but mostly this reads like the crappy blog entries I wrote to vent my frustration at trying to find my way around Europe alone after college. All of the stress and whining and disorientation and disappointed expectations, and little of the good stuff that ultimately made the trip worthwhile.

It's a lot easier to write snark(and lord, does he go for the easy snark) than wonder, and it's a lot easier to write with the frame you bring in than to figure out how the trip has changed or surprised you. I know Bryson was a lot younger when he wrote this, but I still had a hard time believing it was him for much of the book. Especially disappointing because this is always spoken so well of, and now I just don't get where that comes from at all.
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LibraryThing member reading_fox
Meh. Probably of interest to those who live in the towns he passes through, but even then only if you didn't like them. The sarcasm quickly becomes wearying, and the highlight is probably the excert from his latest book, Thunderbolt kid, and it's memories of 1950s USA.

Bill has been in the UK for the last several years, raising his own family, but he decides to visit the US and recreate some of the road-trips he took with his family as a child. Unsurprisingly he discovers that the US is no longer a nation of small comfortable towns, and has become corporately ubiquitous - all the towns are the same blend of franchises and chains. He spends a coupel of months driving along various small roads to discover this.

Along the way he meets a few people, and visits some of the tourist destinations that he's always been intending to see, or had loved as a child. These all dissapoint him. Again this is unsurprising, his hopes were way too high and unrealistic. There are a few pleasant places, but overal Bill leaves you with the impression that the flyover states really aren't worth visiting.
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LibraryThing member kittyjay
Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent is a travelogue of Bryson’s attempt to find the perfect small town in America. You know the one. There’s a soda shop on the corner, and a drug store run by a man sweeping the sidewalk in a white apron, and a kid rides by periodically on his bike, delivering papers. As he travels across 38 states looking for Amalgam, America, he explores overlooked (and sometimes overpriced) museums, bad diners, and picturesque tourist traps. With his characteristic humor, Bryson paints a portrait of life in these small towns while on the ultimate road trip.

Though I love Bryson, this one was one of his weaker ones for me. He starts out strong, with recollections of his childhood and family vacations. It is curious that he manages to paint a picture so personal, and yet immediately familiar to anyone. Reading it brought to mind my own family vacations as a kid: dad getting lost and mom gently saying we should stop for directions, picnicking at rest-stops along the road where the wind is always 96% worse than anywhere else, even the beloved billboards promising wondrous attractions in Podunk towns. He also turns his razor sharp wit on the general boringness of many of these towns and the monotony that driving cross-country can be.

And this is where it starts to falter. Though the beginning is strong, tinged as it is with obvious affection for memories of his father, the trip itself starts to grow monotonous as well. I lost count of how many times he mentioned that the road he took was marked “scenic” on his map (while repetition can make a joke funnier, in this case, it just made it more repetitious), or that every place he stopped felt the same. There were very few anecdotes that stood out, because all of them started to meld together – which may be true, in that small towns usually all do feel alike, but unfortunately doesn’t work in book form.

I have not read anything but his books, but I suspect Bryson would be a master of the short story. If it were confined to one or two towns, it would be hilarious; after twenty or thirty, it just starts to wear on you. There are still some witticisms and bon mots thrown in to liven things up, but during the last chapters especially, I felt myself going into highway hypnosis. Bryson is also curiously self-contained. For someone claiming to be on a journey to find small-town America, he barely interacts with anyone; the book seems to take place in the car more than the towns. He intersperses them with trips to museums or landmarks, but most of these offer little more than an honest guidebook - I'd rather hear about the people he meets on the trip, or the weird, quirky things, not a long description of, "I hopped in my car to go to another place, where I would then hop into my car to go to yet another place." I kept thinking, "What's the point of this?" Like the American tourist who goes to France to eat at McDonald's, Bryson travels America to eat at chain restaurants and avoid anything remotely unique to the place.

While not a bad book, per se, The Lost Continent doesn't hold a candle to his other novels. I would recommend starting with some of his other ones, like Notes from a Small Island or A Walk in the Woods, if you’re looking for an introduction to Bryson’s best.
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LibraryThing member mstrust
An early one from Bryson that has him driving solo through America to visit the small towns in search of the perfect (in his eyes) one, though for some reason, he also visits Manhattan and Las Vegas too. This is full of Bryson's humor, but also unexpected pettiness and sometimes he's downright mean here, which are not so much his trademark traits. Maybe it's because he was very young while writing this one, but he's really harsh on women he doesn't find attractive, he spends a couple of chapters returning over and over to inequality in America's history, and he is so unfair to the South that I had to wonder why he'd bothered going there. His perception of what he'd find in the South was so ingrained in his head that he mocked people as they're being friendly and helpful to him.
There are very, very funny passages, like his one-night stay in a little Vermont town full of creepy locals, and his memories throughout the book of the family vacations of his childhood with his incredibly cheap father. These balance things out some, at least for me.
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LibraryThing member beserene
Though I am a fan of Bryson's keen observations and wry wit, I found this book -- an early offering of his from 1990 -- way too cynical and snarky. Part of Bryson's success is that he is appealing and a likable everyman, but in his observations of small town Americans here -- in which he liberally applies the adjectives fat and stupid, or the equivalent -- he alienates the reader. Any other Bryson books, I would heartily recommend, but I cannot do so with this one. Bottom line: Pass on this and seek out his newer, mellower work.… (more)
LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
I don’t know whether people from small town America are charmed or insulted by Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, but for me this was a humorous and light-hearted look at rural America. Both his snide comments and outright zingers were dangerously close to “going to far” but at the same time there was always a grain of recognizable truth in his comments. Although his observations seemed neither terribly original or outstandingly witty, they reminded me of things my own snarky family would say to amuse each other.

What this book did do was fire me up, got me ready to grab a travelling companion and hit the roads for my own exploration of small town America. Road trips have long been my preferred mode of vacationing, I enjoy the “getting there” better than actually “being there” so this book appealed to me on that level. I kept an American road map close by during the reading which helped me visualize where he was and how he got there. I totally agree with his disdain towards the large interstate freeways, as I too, prefer to travel the scenic byways and smaller highways.

To me there is a magic to be found on the open roads and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America captured this feeling perfectly.
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LibraryThing member goodinthestacks
I have been reading many travelogues lately and The Lost Continent was next on my list. I have read a few books by Bill Bryson before and I was looking forward to read his view of small town America.

I stopped at page 55 after Mr. Bryson's diatribe on how people in America do not pronounce the names of cities correctly, as if you have to pronounce Cairo like the city in Egypt and if you don't you are a "backward, undereducated shitkicker." I am not from a small town, but I found this to be the final negative comment I could stand to read. I decided that Mr. Bryson will most likely complain through the rest of the book, so I decided to stop.

"Blue Highways" by William Least Heat-Moon was a far better read about small town America both in prose and scope.

Two stars because I did enjoy a few pages, but otherwise it is just complaint after complaint for very little reason, if any. He tried too hard to be funny by being negative, but it did not work.
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LibraryThing member adzebill
I've read all of Bill Bryson's books, and this is my favorite. (Neither Here nor There, his European travelogue, is a close second). In his later books he bcomes more and more cheerful and huggy, until eventually he couldn't find anything bad to say about Australia. Australia! Thankfully in this one he's evenly split between praise and snide mockery, which is perfectly appropriate; much of back country America is indeed God-awful, and finally someone says so. Nevertheless, the book is also as much about coming to terms with the death of his father, and the ruination of the country he remembered from his childhood, as it is making fun of terrible road food. And he's really, really funny.… (more)
LibraryThing member neurp
So I've read Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent as well as his In a Sunburned Country (both travel writings). Sunburned, I must say, was way better than Lost Continent. I actually read Sunburned first and really liked it, loved it actually. So I was really interested in reading his other books. But this book was a bit of a disapointment. I think Lost Continent was one of his first works so he wasn't very good yet with the actual travel bits, like the introductions of states, bits of trivia, information about places visited. He did a much better job with Sunburned; you actually learn a lot from this book. It will in no way replace an actual travel guide but it does provide lots of silly and rather useless statistical information. Lost Continent gets better with this info stuff as you read along. However in other aspects it doesn't get much better. In Sunburned it's obvious that he loves Australia and is really happy to be visiting. He has nice things to say about everyone and everything. He doesn't bs thoough; if he doesn't find it charming he says so. But in Lost Continent he's just an ass. Oh sure we know that he left America at basically the first chance he got so of course we're not expecting him to be in love the States or anything. But he's so mean! He's highly critcal and talks shit about nearly everything! He doesn't, by far, seem like the type of person I'd want to travel with (in this book anyway). In Sunburned he seemed like a very pleasant man, maybe he mellowed with age? They say his other book A Walk in the Woods is also really good but I'm a bit put off from Lost Country. Mabye it's just that my expectations were so raised from Sunburned? In any case, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had hoped I would.… (more)
LibraryThing member birgit
Bill Bryson travels through the US visiting the places he was as a boy at. Hitting the road he is very enthusiastic, but soon the excitement is dying down. The towns he gets to are mostly remote and boring. So he hilariously complains about one town after another and critiques nowadays America.
LibraryThing member BoundTogetherForGood
I love funny and Bill Bryson is funny. This book is simply his ramblings as he drives across the USA in search of the perfect small American town.
LibraryThing member pacifickle
While author Bill Bryson was a child in Iowa, his family took many road trips to other places by car. Bill, now a 36 year old expatriate, decides to retrace these trips to recapture the whimsical, nostalgic memories of his 1950s childhood. Bill’s narration is definitely funny and spot-on. I couldn’t help but hold my breath until he got to towns I’d been to or knew of, to see how his brain interpreted it.… (more)
LibraryThing member vicarofdibley
small town america is even funnier with bryson in the driving seat
LibraryThing member zojo
One of my favourite books of all time - have read this 4 or 5 times now, and it always has me in stitches. Bryson's best ever book too, I think.
LibraryThing member florafloraflora
Bill Bryson sets out on a road trip to relive the cheap, tacky vacations of his childhood, then whines about how cheap and tacky everything is. It's hard to express how much I loathe this book.
LibraryThing member kaelirenee
I've read two other Bryson books, so my expectations were admittedly high. This book didn't even come close to meeting them. There are some wry observations and hillarious reminicing, reminding us all the the glowing luster we put on our childhood is often misplaced. But then, he just got abrassive. I'm a big fan of sarcasm, British humor, snarkiness and dry wit. He missed the mark many times while trying to accomplish this. I'm a Texan (and to be honest, I couldn't stomach the whole book, so I stopped reading before he got to Texas, which is probably a good thing), where the unofficial motto is "Thank God for Mississippi," and even I thought he was just being mean about Mississippi for the sake of being mean. He's yet another person who mistakes Southern hospitality for slow, dimwittedness. The entire book, I wanted to shout at him-if you're having such a miserable time, go home. Sheesh.

I'm glad I've read his other work before reading this, because this book would have soured me on him and I would have missed some excellent writing.
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LibraryThing member lahochstetler
This book: part humor, part travelogue, narrates Bryson's road trip across the United States and back again. Bryson travels without strict itinerary, and with frequent stops in small towns across the country. The narrative is written in classic Bryson style, with frequent diversions to explain the origin of many of life's oddities, and with constant sideline commentary. As is usually the case with Bryson, the narrative is illuminating, amusing, and shows Bryson's sense of adventure. It was a pleasure to read. Yes, Bryson is frequently critical, but it's important to note that he's an equal-opportunity offender. Wherever he goes he brings his decidedly sarcastic wit, but he also balances criticism with admiration. This is not a book with a weighty message about humanity or morality, but it is a fun read to pick up and put down at leisure. And the ability to dive in and out is one of the beautiful things about this book; one can enjoy it and put it aside at will, and it takes little time to become reengaged in Bryson's prose.… (more)
LibraryThing member NellieMc
Although now a little outdated, Bryson at his satirical best -- though he tempers his comments with enough affection that he keeps them from being a sophisticated scorn. The first part of his journey -- traveling south and east from Des Moines and back is much stronger than his second leg --west and back. I think he got a little tired. But definitely worth reading, even now.… (more)
LibraryThing member llandaff
I end up in fits of laughter every time I pick up this book. Bill's best!
LibraryThing member ORFisHome
Good but not his best. It was his first book and funny in parts not to the level of some others.


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