Bill Bryson


Bill Bryson

Bryson in 2018
Bryson in 2018
BornWilliam McGuire Bryson
(1951-12-08) 8 December 1951 (age 69)
Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.
Alma materDrake University
  • Travel
  • English language
  • Science
Cynthia Billen
(m. 1975)

William McGuire Bryson OBE HonFRS (/ˈbrsən/; born 8 December 1951) is an American–British author of books on travel, the English language, science, and other nonfiction topics. Born in the United States, he has been a resident of Britain for most of his adult life, returning to the U.S. between 1995 and 2003, and holds dual American and British citizenship. He served as the chancellor of Durham University from 2005 to 2011.[1][2][3][4]

Bryson came to prominence in the United Kingdom with the publication of Notes from a Small Island (1995), an exploration of Britain, and its accompanying television series. He received widespread recognition again with the publication of A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), a book widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science.

Early life

Bryson was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of Bill Bryson Sr., a sports journalist who worked for 50 years at the Des Moines Register, and Agnes Mary (née McGuire), the home furnishings editor at the same newspaper.[5][6] His mother was of Irish descent.[7] He had an older brother, Michael (1942–2012), and a sister, Mary Jane Elizabeth. In 2006, Bryson published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a humorous account of his childhood years in Des Moines.[6]

Bryson attended Drake University for two years before dropping out in 1972, deciding instead to backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high school friend, Matt Angerer (the pseudonymous Stephen Katz).[8] Bryson wrote about some of his experiences from the trip in his book Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.

Move to the United Kingdom

Bryson speaking in New York, 2013

Bryson first visited Britain in 1973[9] during his tour of Europe[10] and decided to stay after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital,[11] the now-defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He met a nurse there, Cynthia Billen, whom he married in 1975.[11] They moved to Bryson's hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, in 1975 so Bryson could complete his degree at Drake University.[6] In 1977 they settled in Britain.[12]

He worked as a journalist, first for the Bournemouth Evening Echo, eventually becoming chief copy editor of the business section of The Times and deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent.

The Brysons have moved around the UK, living in Virginia Water (Surrey), Purewell (Dorset), Burton (Dorset), Kirkby Malham (North Yorkshire, in the 1980s and '90s), and the Old Rectory in Wramplingham, Norfolk (2003–2013).[13] They currently live in rural Hampshire and maintain a small flat in South Kensington, London.[11] From 1995 to 2003 they lived in Hanover, New Hampshire.[14]

Although able to apply for British citizenship, Bryson said in 2010 that he had declined a citizenship test, declaring himself "too cowardly" to take it.[15] However, in 2014, he said that he was preparing to take it[16] and in the prologue to his 2015 book The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island he describes doing so, in Eastleigh. His citizenship ceremony took place in Winchester and he now holds dual citizenship.[11]


While living in the US in the 1990s Bryson wrote a column for a British newspaper for several years, reflecting on humorous aspects of his repatriation in the United States. These columns were selected and adapted to become his book I'm a Stranger Here Myself, alternatively titled Notes from a Big Country in Britain, Canada, and Australia. During his time in the US, Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym), about which he wrote the book A Walk in the Woods. In the 2015 film adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson is portrayed by Academy Award winner Robert Redford, and Katz by Nick Nolte.[17]

In 2003, in conjunction with World Book Day, British voters chose Bryson's book Notes from a Small Island as that which best summed up British identity and the state of the nation.[18] The same year, he was appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.

His popular science book, the 500-page A Short History of Nearly Everything, explores not only the histories and current statuses of the sciences, but also their humble and often humorous beginnings. Although one "top scientist" is alleged to have jokingly described the book as "annoyingly free of mistakes,"[19] Bryson himself makes no such claim, and a list of some of its reported errors is available online.[20]

In November 2006, Bryson interviewed then British prime minister Tony Blair on the state of science and education.[21]

Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language, The Mother Tongue and Made in America—and, more recently, an update of his guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (first published as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words in 1983).

In October 2020 he announced that he had "retired" from writing books.[22]


In 2012 Bryson sued his agent, Jed Mattes Inc., in New York County Supreme Court, claiming it had "failed to perform some of the most fundamental duties of an agent."[23] The case was settled out of court, with part of the settlement being that Bryson may not discuss it.

In 2013 Bryson claimed copyright on an interview he had given nearly 20 years previously, after the interviewer republished it as an 8000-word e-book.[24][25] Amazon removed the e-book from publication.

Awards, positions and honours

Bryson in the regalia of Chancellor of Durham University, with Durham Cathedral in the background

In 2005, Bryson was appointed chancellor of Durham University,[19] succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and became more active with student activities than is common for holders of that post, appearing in a Durham student film and promoting litter-collection in the city.[26] He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. In October 2010, it was announced that Bryson would step down at the end of 2011.[27]

In May 2007, he became the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.[28][29] His first focus in this role was the establishment of an anti-littering campaign across England. He discussed the future of the countryside with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford, Nicholas Crane, and Richard Girling at CPRE's Volunteer Conference in November 2007.[17]

Bryson has received numerous awards for his ability to communicate science with passion and enthusiasm. In 2004, he won the Aventis Prize for best general science book that year, with A Short History of Nearly Everything.[30] In 2005, the book won the European Union's Descartes Prize for science communication.[30] In 2005, he received the President's Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences. In 2007, he won the Bradford Washburn Award, from the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts, for contributions to the popularization of science. In 2012, he received the Kenneth B. Myer Award, from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience, in Melbourne, Australia.

With the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Bill Bryson prize for Science Communication was established in 2005. [31] The competition engages students from around the world in explaining science to non-experts.

He was made an honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his contribution to literature on 13 December 2006.[32] In 2007, he was awarded the James Joyce Award by the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin. After he received British citizenship, his OBE was made substantive.

In 2011, Bryson won the Golden Eagle Award from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.[33] On 22 November 2012, Durham University officially renamed the Main Library the Bill Bryson Library for his contributions as the university's 11th chancellor (2005–2011).[34][35] The library also has a cafe named after Bryson's book Notes from a Small Island.[36]

Bryson was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2013,[37] becoming the first non-Briton to receive this honour.[38][39] His biography at the Society reads:

Bill Bryson is a popular author who is driven by a deep curiosity for the world we live in. Bill's books and lectures demonstrate an abiding love for science and an appreciation for its social importance. His international bestseller, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), is widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science and has since been adapted for children.

In 2006 Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, awarded Bryson the key to the city and announced that 21 October 2006 would be "Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day."[40]

In January 2007, Bryson was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow at the Pomfret School in Connecticut.[41]

Honorary doctorates



Bryson has written the following books:

Title Publication Date Genre Notes
The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words 26 April 1984 Language Republished, in 2002, as “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words”
The Palace under the Alps and Over 200 Other Unusual, Unspoiled and Infrequently Visited Spots in 16 European Countries[51] January 1985 Travel
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America August 1989 Travel
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (US) / Mother Tongue: The English Language (UK) 1 June 1990 Language Adapted for Journeys in English in 2004 for BBC Radio 4.
The Penguin Dictionary for Writers and Editors 29 August 1991 Language Republished, in 2009, as “Bryson’s Dictionary: for Writers and Editors”
Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe 1 February 1992 Travel Featuring Stephen Katz
Made in America (UK) / Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (U.S.) 4 July 1994 Language
Notes from a Small Island 16 May 1996 Travel Adapted for television by Carlton Television in 1998.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail 4 May 1998 Travel Featuring Stephen Katz. Adapted into a feature film in 2015.
Notes from a Big Country (UK) / I'm a Stranger Here Myself (U.S.) 1 January 1999 Travel
Down Under (UK) / In a Sunburned Country (U.S.) 6 June 2000 Travel Republished, in 2002, as an omnibus with A Walk in the Woods titled “Walkabout”
Bill Bryson's African Diary 3 December 2002 Travel Travels in Africa for CARE International.
A Short History of Nearly Everything 6 May 2003 Science Adapted, in 2009, as an illustrated children's edition titled “A Really Short History of Nearly Everything”
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: Travels through my Childhood 17 October 2006 Memoir
Shakespeare: The World as Stage 1 January 2007 Biography
At Home: A Short History of Private Life 27 May 2010 History
One Summer: America, 1927 1 October 2013 History
The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island 8 October 2015 Travel
The Body: A Guide for Occupants[52][53] 3 October 2019[52] Science


  1. ^ "Bill Bryson". Durham University. Archived from the original on 5 December 2010. Retrieved 29 July 2010.
  2. ^ Bill Bryson at IMDb
  3. ^ Bill Bryson collected news and commentary at The Guardian
  4. ^ "Bill Bryson collected news and commentary". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Richert, Scott P. (2011). Bill Bryson. Marshall Cavendish. p. 6. ISBN 9780761441205.
  6. ^ a b c "Writer Bill Bryson remembers his Iowa roots". Ames Tribune. Gannett Co. 28 October 2013. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  7. ^ Bryson, Bill. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. p. 121.
  8. ^ Kilen, Mike (1 September 2015). "The real life of Bill Bryson's 'Stephen Katz'". The Des Moines Register; USA Today.
  9. ^ a b "Bill Bryson visits his utopia". The Independent. 7 May 2002. Archived from the original on 9 September 2010.
  10. ^ Wroe, Nicholas (14 March 2015). "Bill Bryson: 'When I came here the UK was poorer but much better looked after'". The Guardian.
  11. ^ a b c d Stephenson, Hannah (24 October 2015). "Bill Bryson: 'I'm American, but I cheer for England now in the World Cup until they get kicked out'". The Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  12. ^ Longden, Tom. "Famous Iowans: Bill Bryson". Des Moines Register.
  13. ^ Bryson, Bill (2016). The Road to Little Dribbling. London: Black Swan.
  14. ^ Bryson, Bill. "I'm a Stranger Here Myself". The New York Times.
  15. ^ Barkham, Patrick (29 May 2010). "Bill Bryson: I'll cheer for England, but I won't risk citizenship test". The Guardian. London.
  16. ^ Bryson, Bill (3 July 2014). "Interview: Bill Bryson". Interviewed by Jenny Chou. Cogora Ltd.
  17. ^ a b Gleick, Elizabeth (30 May 1999). "Notes from a huge landmass". The New York Times.
  18. ^ "Bryson tops 'England' poll". BBC News. 6 March 2003. Retrieved 5 August 2008.
  19. ^ a b Crace, John (15 November 2005). "Bill Bryson: The accidental chancellor". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 10 February 2008. Retrieved 26 April 2010.
  20. ^ "Errata and corrigenda: 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson".
  21. ^ "PM in conversation with Bill Bryson",, UK Prime Minister's Office (published 30 November 2006), 29 November 2006, archived from the original on 27 October 2007, retrieved 10 April 2009
  22. ^ Sanderson, David (15 October 2020). "Bill Bryson puts down his pen and picks up a book". The Times. Retrieved 19 October 2020.
  23. ^ "Author Bill Bryson Takes Agent to Court". Courthouse News Service. Pasadena, California. 4 December 2012. Archived from the original on 16 February 2013. Retrieved 31 January 2020.CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  24. ^ Mike Masnick (21 October 2013). "Author Claims Copyright Over Interview He Gave 20 Years Ago". Techdirt. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  25. ^ Galvin, Nick (18 October 2013). "Bill Bryson's copyright stoush with Mike Gerrard has wider implications". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  26. ^ "Bill Bryson Litter Pick". durham21. 1 March 2008. Retrieved 17 September 2011.
  27. ^ "Bill Bryson stepping down as Chancellor". Durham University. 20 September 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2011.
  28. ^ "Bryson to head litterbug campaign". BBC News. 2 May 2007. Retrieved 5 August 2008.
  29. ^ "Contact Us". Campaign to Protect Rural England.
  30. ^ a b Pauli, Michelle (7 December 2005). "Bryson wins Descartes prize for his guide to science". The Guardian. London.
  31. ^ "Westminster setting for Bill Bryson award". Royal Society of Chemistry. 31 October 2005. Retrieved 21 November 2010.
  32. ^ "Bill Bryson made an honorary OBE". BBC News. 13 December 2006. Retrieved 5 August 2008.
  33. ^ "Bill Bryson Wins Prestigious Golden Eagle Award". Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild. 26 August 2011.
  34. ^ "The Main Library is being renamed 'The Bill Bryson Library'!". Durham University. 25 September 2012. Retrieved 27 November 2012.
  35. ^ "Bill Bryson Library renaming event, Tuesday 27 November 2012". Durham University. 22 November 2012.
  36. ^
  37. ^ "Mr Bill Bryson OBE HonFRS Honorary Fellow". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 5 October 2015. biographical text reproduced here was originally published by the Royal Society under a creative commons license
  38. ^ "New Fellows 2013". Royal Society. 2 May 2013. Retrieved 3 May 2012.
  39. ^ "Honorary Fellows of the Royal Society". Royal Society. 23 May 2013. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  40. ^ "Proclamation of October 21, 2006 as 'The Thunderbird Kid' Day" (PDF). The City of Des Moines; republished online by Random House. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 June 2008.
  41. ^ "Pomfret Swartz Fellows". Archived from the original on 23 October 2013.
  42. ^ "Bryson takes to 'Streets of Bournemouth'". Bournemouth University. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  43. ^ "Honorary degrees 21st - 25th June". University of St Andrews. 20 June 2005. Archived from the original on 18 August 2016. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
  44. ^ Kershaw, Andy (4 October 2012). No off Switch. ISBN 9780753541074.
  45. ^ "Bill Bryson - Honorary Degree". University of Leicester. 24 June 2009. Archived from the original on 10 November 2021 – via YouTube.
  46. ^ "Honorary Degrees Awarded by Drake University". Drake University.
  47. ^ "Bill Bryson receives honorary doctorate". King's College London. 14 November 2012. Bill Bryson OBE: the UK's highest-selling author of non-fiction, acclaimed as a science communicator, historian and man of letters.
  48. ^ "Bill Bryson receives Honorary Doctorate". University Business. 26 July 2015. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  49. ^ "Author Bill Bryson to receive honorary degree from UI". Iowa Now. 12 May 2016.
  50. ^ "University of Winchester honours prominent figures at Graduation 2016". Archived from the original on 4 January 2017. Retrieved 3 January 2017.
  51. ^ "Bill Bryson interview: 'I enjoy the preposterousness of life'".
  52. ^ a b "Bill Bryson returns with The Body: A Guide for Occupants". Penguin Books. 15 January 2019.
  53. ^ Pignataro, Juliana Rose (3 October 2019). "21 Books to Curl Up With This Fall". Newsweek. Retrieved 31 January 2020.

External links

  • Works at Open Library
  • Article archive at Journalisted
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
  • Review 'A Walk in the Woods' (June 30, 1998) on Charlie Rose
  • Bill Bryson — A short history of nearly everything presentation at the Royal Society
  • BBC Radio Five Live interview with Bill Bryson about the British countryside
  • Interview with Bill Bryson about his career in travel writing.
  • At Home: A History of Private Life by Bill Bryson: A review, James Walton, The Telegraph, 19 June 2010
  • Bill Bryson interview on BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, 5 February 1999
  • book Mother Tongue:The English Language corrections
Academic offices
Preceded by Chancellor of the University of Durham
Succeeded by
Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by President of the
Campaign to Protect Rural England

Succeeded by