There is not enough non-fiction reading assigned in high schools. There are textbooks and fiction, which is mostly assigned by English Departments, but there is a dearth of good non-fiction texts offered to students. However, there is one safe text to assign, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods first published in 1998.
The book chronicles Bryson’s attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail (2181 miles) which runs from Georgia to Maine with a friend “Stephen Katz” (according to Wikipedia , a pseudonym for Matthew Angerer). The book is informative, easy to read, and incredibly funny. Bryson’s ability to move fluidly between the history of the trail and the encounters he has with people and animals makes the book very accessible to all readers. Students make connections from the book to a wide variety of topics: geography, ecology, psychology and animal science. More importantly, the book can be added to different English Department curriculum units of adventure or memoir or the American Transcendental Movements.
In preparing for the hike, Bryson discusses all the possible dangers, none of which seem more frightening than bear attacks:
“Imagine, if you will,” he writes, “lying in the dark in a little tent nothing but a few microns of trembling nylon between you and the chill night air listening to a 400-pound bear moving around your campsite. Imagine its quiet grunts and mysterious snufflings, the clatter of upended cookware, and sounds of moist gnawings, the pad of its feet and the the heaviness of its breath, the singing brush of its haunch along your tent side. Imagine the hot flood of adrenaline, that unwelcome tingle in the back of your arms, at the sudden rough bump of its snout against the foot of your tent, the alarming wide wobble of your frail shell as it roots through your backpack that you left casually propped by the entrance-with, you suddenly recall, a Snickers in the pouch. Bears adore Snickers.”
When Bryson’s friend Katz asks to join him on the trip, they agree to do a three day practice run, and Bryson happily realizes, “I would not have to do this on my own!” Katz flies in arriving at the airport carrying a 75-pound green army surplus bag; “Snickers,” he [Katz] explained, “lots and lots of Snickers.” Hilarious.
The book has had great success in the adult market, and there are always copies in the secondary market in one of three forms: hardcover, trade and mass-market paperbacks. I initially started collecting all three types in order to have enough copies for all students, but now I limit purchases to the trade copy which retails at Amazon for $9.59. We now have 54 copies which would cost $581.56 retail; our cost $55 dollars, a savings of $462.86.
I have also collected a dozen copies of Bryson’s other book, I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away published in 2000, which has the same humorous observations and interesting facts for students who might want to continue with this author. I only find the trade paperback copies in the used book market that are available retail at Amazon for $10.87. I have spent $12.00 instead of $130.44, but only one student has been tempted so far.
Bryson only covers about 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, reasoning that amount of hiking was sufficient for him to understand the enormity of his goal. In undertaking this journey he brings all readers to an new appreciation for our nation’s East Coast geography and ecology. Students do enjoy his writing style and his running commentary on current ecological challenges along the trail. And he is very, very funny.
I love this book and my kids have heard it (the audio version). We live close to the AT, so it has added meaning to us.
How is your school with the F-bombs? Here in VA, our public schools would flip about those. My kids, on the other hand, know the difference between what adults may say among adults and what language is appropriate for daily use.
I have not heard the audio version; I imagine it would be hilarious as well. I offer an alternative to any text if a parent has an objection to the language. For A Walk in the Woods, I might offer Kon-Tiki or Endurance about Shackleton’s voyage. I always keep a few classics in mind whenever we read a text, such as the friendly A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the less than engaging Ivanhoe or Ethan Frome. I have few complaints as long as I do not “assign” a controversial text; there are always options….I call this differentiation.