When internationally best-selling author William “Bill” Bryson visits his home state of Iowa, he often flies to Chicago, then drives to Des Moines. Though he has done it for many years now, Bryson explains, crossing the Mississippi River and reading a sign that says “Welcome to Iowa” still makes his heart race.
“I love Iowa,” Bryson said in a speech at the University of Iowa Graduate College Commencement on May 13.
“I’ve been lucky enough to spend much of my life traveling the world,” says Bryson, “and I can tell you, honestly, that nowhere have I found people more friendly, decent, wholesome, and helpful—and, frankly, generally better looking and more intelligent—than the people of this fair state of Iowa.”
Bryson recently visited Iowa City from England, where he currently resides, to receive an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree for having contributed to higher education and, on a global scale, to writing and science.
Though Bryson has received honorary degrees from numerous universities, he says, “There isn’t anywhere else on earth where such an honor would mean more to me than right here in the state of my birth.”
Bryson toured campus and participated in a Q&A at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he once aspired to attend, and met with with 32 local middle and high school students from the Iowa Youth Writing Project.
At all of these events, Bryson not only exhibited the kindness he attributes to Iowans but also employed what he feels is their characteristic humor. He tells a story of his father who, on a vacation to California, once threw money into the San Andreas Fault. When asked why, his father explained, “I’ve always wanted to be generous to a fault.”
Watch Bill Bryson offer his 10 Simple Rules for Happiness at the Graduate College commencement ceremony on the UI YouTube page.
Though known for his comedic tone, Bryson admits that “comedy writing is the hardest thing in the world” because of how difficult it is to predict audience reception. England and Iowa share an uncommon vein of humor, according to Bryson, and his writing is littered with light-hearted jabs at non-British and non-Iowans befuddled by his japes.
Bryson has rarely visited Iowa City, which he describes as “nirvana.” He has passed by many times when driving from Chicago to Des Moines. However, when researching his award-winning book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson visited the UI’s Trowbridge Hall, which houses the Iowa Geological Survey. Two geologists who worked there at the time are significantly featured in the book.
Now that Bryson’s mother has passed away, he laments the shrinking number of reasons to visit his home state.
One thing that he hopes will draw him back is research for his next book, which he reports will be on the human body. The reputation of UI Hospitals and Clinics as a home for important research makes a much desired excuse for him to return and conduct interviews, Bryson says.
Bryson also hopes to time future visits with basketball games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Living in England, he admits that American sports are one of the things he misses most about life in the U.S. His father worked as sports reporter for The Des Moines Register, and Bryson has fond memories of accompanying him to basketball games at the UI Field House.
“I was really shocked on this trip—because this is the first time I’ve had a good look at Iowa City for some years—by how much it’s changed, mostly for the better,” Bryson says.
The campus is more beautiful than he expected, and he says the UI has done the best job of any large public university he knows to hide ugly parking lots and other transportation-related accommodations.
The vitality of Prairie Lights, the Iowa City bookstore of national fame, heartens Bryson, who says, “I want to live in a world where I can go to bookshops and browse.”
However, the rise in the popularity of e-books and e-book readers, such as the Nook and Kindle, worry him. “I’m maybe just from the wrong generation,” he says, “but I will never discover unexpected surprises on the internet. I have to see the things physically.”
“That’s my favorite thing about a book store and one of the reasons I was looking forward to going to Prairie Lights—I’ll discover stuff,” Bryson says.
Despite his critical and commercial success, Bryson says that his best days are those when he doesn’t write. They permit him to visit a place without taking notes, photos, or having to analyze what he’s seeing. When he isn’t writing, Bryson allows himself to simply enjoy travel instead of constantly documenting it.
According to Bryson’s 10 simple rules for happiness: “Take a moment from time to time to remember that you are alive.”