Sunday, November 11, 2012

Accents, Bill Bryson, and Audiobooks

I'm sure we can all agree that accents are important. Now, hear me out. I'm not trying to offend (although I normally do anyway), but what's the first thing you think when you hear a Southern accent?

If you said anything but "hick" (or maybe "a genteel Southern Belle drinking a mint julep on a wraparound porch," or I guess "Foghorn Leghorn" too), you're lying. I spent five years of my life in Oklahoma (and my family still lives there, the poor bastards), but I still associate "idiot" with a Southern accent. I do declare! Although I suppose there's a distinction between a Texas-southern-accent and a Mi'sippi-southern-accent, but we won't go into that here.

Okay, next test. How about a British accent?

SMART, right? That person is quite intelligent! He drinks tea and eats crumpets and could easily lecture you on the difference between Keynesian and classical economic theory (I think that's a thing?) while playing polo. Someone with a British accent (again, we're going to assume this is your typical Queen's-English British accent, and not cockney or something) just sounds smart.

Your basic American accent (a non-accent, from the Midwest) is just average. Can we all agree on that? That person is your Everyman (or -woman). They aren't a moron, yet they aren't overwhelmingly scholarly; they don't talk through their nose like Chicagoans or New Yorkers. They don't pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd or eat clam chowdah; deir friends aren't dere in da woodchipper, eh? Oh ya. 

This whole (overwhelmingly offensive, to those of you with your panties in a twist, I'm sure) discourse on accents is really just the prelude to my main point. Do any of you read Bill Bryson? He's a hilarious travel writer and a very intelligent man. He's from Iowa (your aforementioned "Midwest Everyman") and presents his stories within that frame of reference, so he's very relatable. He's travelled all across the world: his In a Sunburned Country is a comprehensive book on Australia, covering everything from the history of its discovery to what kinds of Ozzie flora and fauna will kill you (answer: all of them), all interspersed with a highly entertaining story of his extensive travels around the country/continent; A Walk in the Woods recounts his slog across the Appalachian Trail with a sublimely overweight companion (although it must be said that Bryson himself is not especially svelte). 

My history with Bryson began when I was probably 10 or so. I remember my mother sitting in the living room, laughing out loud, so hard that she was snorting and falling over on the couch. When I asked her what was so funny, she kinda clammed up and told me it was this book she was reading. I asked if I could read it. The answer was an emphatic "NO." Eventually, she decided that while most of his books were absolutely NOT child-appropriate, I'm a Stranger Here Myself--his collection of essays on returning to America after spending 20-some years in Britain--wouldn't scar me too irrevocably. And oh, my, gawdddd were they funny! My particular favorites dealt with his experiments with the garbage-disposal:
     "...there are certain things that are so wonderful in American life that I can hardly stand it myself. 
Chief among these, without any doubt, is the garbage disposal. A garbage disposal is everything a laborsaving device should be and so seldom is--noisy, fun, extremely hazardous, and so dazzlingly good at what it does that you cannot imagine how you ever managed without one. If you had asked me eighteen months ago what the prospects were that shortly my chief amusement in life would be placing assorted objects down a hole in the kitchen sink, I believe I would have laughed in your face, but in fact it is so. 
     ...Coffee grounds in quantity are the most likely to provide a satisfying 'Vesuvius effect,' though for obvious reasons it is best not to attempt this difficult feat until your wife has gone out for the day and to have a mop and stepladder standing by."

and his disdain for warning labels on everything, although he admits that he might need them sometimes:
     "...I went out to run two small errands--specifically, to buy some pipe tobacco and mail some letters. I bought the tobacco, carried it straight across the street to a mailbox, opened the lid, and deposited it. I won't tell you how far I walked before it dawned on me that this was not a 100 percent correct execution of my original plans.
     You see my problem. People who need labels on mailboxes saying 'Not for Deposit of Tobacco or Other Personal Items' can't very well smirk at others, even those who iron their chests or have to seek lathering guidance from a shampoo hotline.
     I mentioned all this at dinner the other night and was appalled to see the enthusiasm and alacrity with which all the members of the family began suggesting labels that would be particularly suitable for me, like 'Caution: When Door Says "Pull" It's Absolutely No Use Pushing' and 'Warning: Do Not Attempt to Remove Sweater Over Head While Walking Among Chairs and Tables.'"

and I actually used his essay entitled "Word Play" as a performance piece when I participated in Drama & Debate in 10th grade:
     "...Haggis, you see, is not a good word for a food--too sporty, too rakish--but it would be an ideal word for a piece of knitted headwear. ('Oh, Tom, you look so handsome in your new haggis.') Haggis simply doesn't sound like a food (but then, as anyone who has eaten haggis will know, it doesn't taste like a food either).
...Sometimes you wonder what they were thinking when they named a thing. Take the pineapple. If ever there was an object that was less like pine and less like an apple, and in nearly every respect, this surely must be it. Or grapefruit. I don't know about you, but if someone handed me an unfamiliar fruit that was yellow, sour, and the size of a cannonball, I don't believe I would say, 'Well, it's rather like a grape, isn't it?'"

(just reading these excerpts is making me laugh out loud.)

Eventually, I was allowed access to his whole collection and devoured them with gusto. Bryson doesn't limit himself to travel, though, but has also penned several fascinating tomes of science and history, notably his recent Home (dealing with the history of all manner of things we have in our houses), and the acclaimed A Short History of Nearly Everything, which covers the Big Bang, dinosaurs, genes, evolution, plate tectonics, and many, many other potentially dense and uninteresting topics. However, since he is your Midwest Everyman (if this phrase isn't already trademarked, I want the credit for it), his tone is light and informative, but never stifling or overly intellectual.

Enter A Short History of Nearly Everything: the Audiobook. I've become a huge fan of audiobooks, as my job requires a lot of driving and having books on my iPod is one of the few ways I entice myself into running as regularly as I do, and I was thrilled at the prospect of learning all kinds of things about our universe while simultaneously distracting myself from the overwhelming boredom of driving in the Plains states.

Remember our earlier discussion about accents? I forgive you if you don't, as that was quite a while ago at this point. I should cut down on my rambling in these posts. Anyway, Bryson is an American. The narrator of the audiobook is British.

FOR. THE. FAIL. Remember how Brits sound scholarly? If you give a Brit a book about many scholarly subjects, even if it's presented in an entertaining format, it will still sound like that guy playing polo and talking about economics. 

Take this excerpt (which is from the very first page of the book):
     "A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this 'i' can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.
     Now imagine if you can (and of course you can't) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe."

 Imagine those paragraphs as spoken by your Everyman. Your thought process should be something like, "Wow! That's a lot of protons, huh? I sure am excited to hear how this building-of-a-universe goes. Let's continue!"

Now a Brit. The proper response is :HONK HONKKKKKKK:, as you have just fallen asleep at the wheel and narrowly avoided a collision. 

I don't really have a wrap-up statement, as I feel like I've made my point perfectly clear: Don't let Brits narrate interesting things. Also, go buy all of Bill Bryson's books, or at least check them out at the library. Just make sure that the narrator knows that "iguanodon" is pronounced "ig-wanna-don," and not "ih-goo-on-oh-don." (True story.)


  1. So I bilt meself an allumainium shak kage, and I tuk it out there in meh dingy...

  2. Interesting fact that I learned from A Brief History: the reason Brits/Ozzies say "aluminium" instead of "aluminum" is because the guy who discovered the element first published it as "aluminum," which North America picked up, but the Brits wanted it to be "-ium" like "sodium," "potassium," and "calcium" so they just basically changed it and kept it that way.