Bill Bryson and writerly retirement

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In October, nonfiction legend and namesake of every Durham student’s favourite place for an essay crisis, author Bill Bryson, announced that he’s putting down his pen and retiring. Having authored twenty-one books on topics from travel writing to Shakespeare to the human body, Bryson has spent thirty-five years producing warm, witty, and cynical prose that has earned him awards including an OBE and, rarely for a writer, a chemistry prize. And, of course, he was Chancellor of Durham  University for six years.  

Bryson’s decision emerged during an interview on Times Radio: “I don’t know how much of this is pandemic-related, I’m really quite enjoying not doing anything at all. For the first time in literally decades, I’ve been reading for pleasure and I’m really enjoying it. Whatever time is left to me on this planet I’d like to spend it indulging myself, rather than going out and trying to cover new territory.” 

Is it even possible for a writer to retire officially? In what is effectively a self-employed job – Bryson’s level of success means he could write a book on any topic he likes in the assurance it would get published immediately – the decision to stop is a personal one. There’s no notice to hand in, no resignation to make. Yet, he’s not the first author to announce retirement; in 2012, the late novelist Philip Roth declared that Nemesis (2010) was his final novel, and Harper Lee famously never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). J. D. Salinger spoke of the “marvellous peace of not publishing” after he quit writing in his mid-forties, and in 2016 Annie Proulx declared that she had published her final novel. Bryson may well make a return to publishing in the future but, for now at least, he’s had enough. 

There’s no notice to hand in, no resignation to make

Back in January, when coronavirus was only a minor headline on Palatinate’s front page, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bryson when he visited Durham for a few days. He declared that “Durham is my favourite place in the whole world  – this is the only place where they call me  ‘Doctor’ and name buildings after me”, and told me that he’s actually quite fond of his namesake library being nicknamed the Billy B. During his Chancellorship,  Bryson used to visit what was then called the Main Library to research his books. He couldn’t be prouder that it’s named after him today, remarking “it’s the best honour that’s ever been paid to me. I love libraries.” 

Bryson first encountered Durham as he was writing what is perhaps his most famous book, Notes from a Small Island (1995).  Having lived in Great Britain for over twenty years, he travelled around the country in an attempt to get to know it properly before moving back to the US with his family. He stopped at Durham by chance on the way to Newcastle, discovering a “perfect little city” with “the best cathedral on planet earth”, a moniker that Durham Cathedral regularly uses in its publicity to this day. Notes from a  Small Island is a fond, tongue-in-cheek look at British life for all its oddities, and the book that made him a real hit in the  UK – clearly us Brits love being told how strange we are. The book was matched by  Notes from a Big Country (1999), an essay collection of columns that Bryson wrote for the Mail on Sunday about moving back to the States and finding himself a stranger in his own country. 

I try to make a  virtue of ignorance

Having started his career as a journalist,  it’s unsurprising that so much of his work is grounded in research. “I try to make a virtue of ignorance,” he told me about his love of learning, “and one powerful advantage is my capacity to be amazed all the time”. He has found a niche in writing accessible, warm nonfiction about ostensibly academic topics, including The Mother Tongue, Shakespeare: the World as  Stage, and his most recent (and, presumably, final) book, The Body: A Guide for  Occupants

Whether this is really the end of Bryson’s career or just a pause, there can be no doubt that his contributions will be sorely missed. Regardless, many readers to come will keep consuming and delighting in Bryson’s work and, of course,  Durham students will keep paying visits to the Billy B – even if you now have to book a slot in advance and wear a mask on entry.  

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