Lost Continent by Bill Bryson is a classic of travel literature, hilariously funny yet tinged with heartache. It is the book that first staked Bill Bryson’s claim as the most beloved writer of his generation.
The novel follows Bill Bryson’s 13,978 mile trip around the United States in search of the mythical small town of his youth. Instead he finds a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger joints; a continent lost to itself through greed, pollution and television, and lost to him because he had become a foreigner in his own country.
The novel is divided into two halves; East and West. During the book, Bryson visits lesser-known tourist spots during his trip, such as author Mark Twain’s childhood home. He also sees many national parks, where he observes their beauty and remarks on how important it is to preserve these areas.
Bryson’s journey takes him to states such as Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire. The novel is filled with Bryson’s witty observations about the people and places that he encounters.
However, there are also moments of sincerity, such as when he remembers his late father, or his grandmother, who moved in with the family when she was diagnosed with colon cancer.
The Lost Continent is one of the most popular American travelogues of the 20th century. The novel is also credited for propelling Bryson to fame and it helped establish the author as the preeminent travel writer of his generation.
There are two purposes to The Lost Continent, firstly to highlight urbanization in small-town America, but also to remember Bryson’s father and his childhood. The novel ends on a sincere note, as Bryson returns to his home town of Des Moines, he concludes that he has lived in the perfect small-town all along.
What I Liked
It’s a classic Bill Bryson travelogue – funny, observant, easy read. I loved that it was through America as well. America is so big and so diverse that even someone who lives here and is well-traveled cannot possibly see everything in a lifetime. It was cool to vicariously experience interesting, small towns that I’ll never see in my life.
I also loved the snapshot in time that he captured. Even though the book is 30+ years old (as of 2023) – it has aged well and reading about late 80s / early 90s America is fascinating.
What I Did Not Like
The book is definitely Bryson’s “Season 1 / Pilot episode” of his travel books. His tone is not as polished as his later travelogues and he relies on anecdotes for the center of the book – instead of the color commentary. I’d recommend this only after reading his best work and after you’re wanting more.