Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Importance of Distractions

Distractions may have garnered a notoriety in the world of media, but as this mention of a shiny blue elephant demonstrates, distractions can ironically be excellent at keeping a reader engaged.

That, weirdly, ties in with Bill Bryson's Made in America, which I just finished. Longtime readers of this sentence will be aware of what this sentence is supposed to be about: Bryson's literary style and the value of distractions.

In a world of increasing brevity, Bill Bryson has managed to remain a trans-generational favorite. Even his books about seemingly boring topics, such as Made in America and A Short History of Nearly Everything, have been popular. A lot of that has, in my opinion, to do with the emphasis he lays on what would be considered by many as distractions. This, among other things such as the lack of a second and third volume, prevents Made in America from becoming a modern take on The American Language. No, don't you dare spoil the point I've made by pretending you know what that is.

The book begins with, as any good tale should, at the beginning: the Mayflower's arrival in the New World. Then on, it tracks the development of the language through the nascent country's early struggles, the nascent country actually becoming a nascent country, the nascent country's rapid march into middle-age rotundity, the surprisingly 1960s-esque 1880s, the World Wars, and the subsequent Space Age.

However, rather than writing a scholarly opiate detailing the development of American English from prepubescence to its - only slightly pimply, to be frank - form, Bryson charts the 400-year journey of the language in anecdotes, tangential references, and a meaningless third term that completes the semantic symmetry of threes in this sentence. This technique helps maintain the pace of the narrative - very easy to drop with such topics - and allows the writer to include more information without it being taxing for the reader.

When writing about the contribution of the aviation industry to the English language, for instance, Bryson dedicates a needless number of pages to how the Wright Brothers almost went uncredited as the inventors of airplanes. When describing the contribution of the car world, the stunningly unsuccessful Ford Edsel's conception is detailed even when it led to the addition of exactly zero words to American English.

This, an intrinsic part of Bryson's writing, ties in with the modern rise of microblogging surprisingly well. Like a concise description of a photo on Instagram but, one hopes, unlike the frankly useless smorgasbord of #narcissistic #hashtags on a Facebook check-in, perhaps the future of the written word lies as essentially a collection of microblogs, perhaps only tenuously tying in with the central tenet but entertaining nonetheless.

Unless, of course, you disguise 90's Bollywood movie scripts as novels and think you know What Young India Wants.


  1. I saw your recommendation on goodreads before I saw this post :)
    Needless to say, it's been added to my ever growing 'to read' list! I've not read Bill Bryson's books before- astonishing, I know!
    Loving the little dig at you-know-who at the end. Haven't read anything from him since high school, and I don't plan to.
    As always, it's fun reading you :)