Professor’s Prologue by Dr. Mary Dockray-Miller, Professor of Humanities at Lesley. Bill Bryson will address Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series on Wednesday, October 2.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
He has written engagingly and knowledgeably on topics ranging from the history of indoor plumbing (“At Home”), deep sea exploration (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”), and Elizabethan theatrical convention (William Shakespeare). His work includes travelogues, science history, biography, and memoir. To check a number of his books out of the library involves tramping around to a variety of different sections and call numbers, the range of which indicates the range of his interests and subjects.
Bryson moves seamlessly among the worlds of academia, journalism, and public letters. He has been presented with a vast number of awards and honors, including an honorary Order of the British Empire, a fellowship in the Royal Society, the Aventis Prize, and University College Dublin's James Joyce Award. He has lived in the US and the UK; his status as simultaneously outsider and insider in both places allows him to investigate, interrogate, and celebrate the places which form the settings and subjects for his books.
I became familiar with Bryson through his work on language, which is as entertaining as the rest of his work. Bryson answers questions about American English that we didn't even think to ask: why are strips of fried potatoes "French"? What is the connection between Eli Whitney's mechanical invention and an alcohol made from juniper berries? What effects did the invention of the automobile and the superhighway have on American English? His “Dictionary of Troublesome Words” is actually a great cover-to-cover read; while I wouldn't think to use it to look up the exact definition of "insect," Bryson's explanation of why spiders are not insects is suitably cautionary. His evaluation of the use of "major" as an adjective is worth quoting: it "brings a kind of tofu quality to much writing, giving it bulk but little additional flavor." While Bryson will be talking mainly about his new book when he visits campus, I hope he is able to spend some time updating students, especially the English and creative writing majors, on his linguistic endeavors.
Bryson is much more than a linguistic historian. “One Summer,” his latest book, officially releases the day before he arrives at Lesley. It tells the story of the United States in the summer of 1927 -- his characters include Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, and a host of lesser-known figures who made America in the midst of the jazz age and prohibition rowdy, exciting, productive, and dangerous. I expect that, like his other books, it will defy genre and convention as it tells a series of interconnected anecdotes in Bryson's trademark urbane yet enthusiastic narrative voice.
For years, we at Lesley have prided ourselves on our knack for interdisciplinary inquiry. When Bryson joins us, he should feel right at home.
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