Months ago, a thoughtful reader recommended that I take Bill Bryson’s new memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, along on an plane trip. Though I didn’t get it in time for takeoff, it was on hand yesterday when I was looking for a break from environmental tomes. Having read or listened to most of Bryson’s other books, notably A Walk in the Woods, I knew his interests include park protection, human-animal relationships, public recreation, scientific progress, & other environmental topics. But I didn’t expect a book about his 1950s Des Moines, Iowa childhood to have such relevance to so many of our current energy, resource, and political crises. I wanted to laugh while reading it, which I did, but instead of getting a break from worrying about the future, I found new insights into when many of our current problems arose in our past.
I’ll leave the formal reviewing to others, such as The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe. My point is more quickly made by quoting from Chapter 4, The Age of Excitement, which begins, “I don’t know how they managed it, but the people responsible for the 1950s made a world in which pretty much everything was good for you. . . . Every week brought exciting news of things becoming better, swifter, more convenient. Nothing was too preposterous to try.” If a corporation with advertising dollars could imagine it, our cultural ethos was “Go for it!” Bryson writes with hilarity and some hyperbole about the wacky new convenience foods we began putting in our mouths. Rolettes—frozen sticks of pureed mixed vegetables concocted in the General Foods laboratories—didn’t last, but thousands of food products packed with preservatives, stabilizers, surfactants, and emulsifiers for our convenience launched to lasting success. June Cleaver, what were you thinking?
Essentially, Bryson’s book is about attitude change. Some changes he notes since the ‘50s are laudable, indeed essential, such as improving civil rights. But so many other ominous values—mass consumerism, anti-intellectualism, unquestioning patriotism, blind faith in technology—emerged or at least hit critical mass post-World War II. What confluence of events led to their emergence and dominance? Even more important, how can we change—whether it’s a question of changing back or moving toward new beliefs and attitudes? Unfortunately, Bryson’s book doesn’t pretend to offer the answers. Instead, it left me wondering what some acerbic writer, growing up in the 2000s, will be writing about our self-destructive attitudes and actions. I hope a thoughtful reader out there can point me toward a book that will leave me not just laughing but smiling toward the future.