Author and humorist Bill Bryson lived up to his reputation by delivering one comic anecdote after the next as he inaugurated the 2013-2014 season of Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series.
Thursday, October 03, 2013
He also fielded questions and read excerpts of his writings, including his most recent book, “One Summer: America, 1927,” which was released just this week.Though he hasn’t written about Boston, Bryson, who is a Des Moines, Iowa, native, lived in New Hampshire for eight years.
“Apart from many other joyous things, I became a Red Sox fan,” he recalled of his time in New England, warming up the audience at the outset of his talk. He praised the beauty of Symphony Hall, then joked with the audience members in the balcony seated below statues in niches in the wall, that “occasionally those statues do topple forward.”
Bryson noted his humble beginnings as an author, an inauspicious start that belied his future ability to draw a crowd in a venue like Symphony Hall. He said his first reading was at a Scranton, Pennsylvania Barnes & Noble, to which five people turned up, including the store manager, two friends of his parents, and another man named Bill Bryson.
“He came all the way from some distant place … so that the two of us could stand together and look at his driver’s license and marvel at the fact we were both called Bill Bryson,” he reminisced. “The fifth person (at the reading) was his wife, who didn’t seem to want to spend the evening with anyone named Bill Bryson,” he quipped, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Bryson went backpacking through Europe in 1973, after dropping out of college, and settled in England after he married. He started his writing career as a journalist, and has gone on to tackle a variety of subjects as an author, refusing to be constrained by genre or subject area.At the Speakers Series lecture, he recollected stories from throughout his life - from childhood to the present - with exquisite detail, self-deprecation and richness, such as his account of the way his mother tended to overcook food in the 1950s and sometimes left on the plastic wrap. “Eventually I realized Saran Wrap wasn’t a kind of chewy glaze,” he quipped.
His pursuit of stories sometimes led him into situations that ranged from uncomfortable to precarious. He recalled riding in a small airplane over the desert in northern Kenya while writing about the international humanitarian agency CARE’s work there. On the return flight to Nairobi, the plane encountered a vicious storm with pelting rain that obscured the pilot’s vision and made for a terrifying ride and white-knuckle landing.
“I had a sudden, overwhelming urge to drink my body weight in alcohol,” Bryson recalled. Each time his work required him to travel in a small airplane, he had vowed he would never do it again. This time it stuck. “The only way I’ll ever be killed by a light aircraft is if one falls on me.”“One Summer: America, 1927,” Bryson’s latest book, chronicles the remarkable summer of 1927, which saw such events as Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth’s record 60 home runs, and Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution in Boston.
“The most amazing galaxy of events happened one after another,” Bryson said before he read a small excerpt. “I have never really liked talking about the newest book. I just want people to read it and see what they think.”
Following his talk, Bryson responded with continuing wit during a Q&A session, for which audience members submitted written questions during the lecture. The session was moderated by Phil Redo, managing director of WGBH-FM, Lesley’s media partner for the Boston Speakers Series.
When asked how long it takes to make the audiobooks that are so enjoyable to listen to during a car trip, he razzed “That’s kind of a strange question. You did the drive. You tell me."
He went on to explain it takes about eight days to record an audiobook and described sitting in a tiny booth, stock still, just reading and rereading.
“It’s just murder. It’s so hard,” he said. “Your muscles are sore at the end of the day because you’ve been clenching them so firmly. It’s like rigor mortis.”
At the start of the lecture, Lesley University President Joseph B. Moore and Redo welcomed the audience and thanked the series subscribers and sponsors. For Lesley, the sold-out series is another form of educational engagement, President Moore said.
The next speaker in Lesley’s Boston Speakers Series is George Papandreou, former Prime Minister of Greece, who will speak on Wednesday, October 16. To learn more about the series, click here.
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