Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself (Broadway Books, 1999)
[originally posted 23Jan2001]
At funtrivia.com, one of the (many) ways a quiz can go from a relatively high ranking to “very poor” between the time I start and the time I finish is a factual error that causes me to get a question wrong. Research is a beautiful thing.
Half of me is willing to give Bill Bryson the benefit of the doubt; the other half is ready to excoriate him on what may be a false impression. I’ll attempt to keep it reserved.
Bryson’s column “The Waste Generation,” about two-thirds of the way through I’m a Stranger Here Myself, starts off with a statistic that’s quite simply wrong (“One of the most arresting statistics I have seen in a good while is that 5 percent of all the energy used in the United States is consumed by computers that have been left on all night.” Wrong; a computer and a monitor, left on twenty-four hours a day, together consume approximately a dollar’s worth of electricity per month. The computer is one of the most energy-efficient machines on the planet today). The American home computer revolution happened while Bryson was out of the country, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It would have been nice, however, had he mentioned his source.
[ed.note 2013: using easily-available energy calculators on the Internet, going by my current electricity rate and the size of my computer’s power source (450W), the current amount of power my computer uses is approximately twenty-eight cents per month, left on 24/7. I have been told this number would only be applicable if both cores in my CPU were maxed the whole time, so the actual amount is probably far less than this. I am willing to continue giving some benefit of the doubt in that EnergyStar may not have been as ubiquitous in 1999 as it is fifteen years later, but the fact remains: if you live in a dwelling with more than three rooms, your incandescent light bulbs likely cost more to use per months than your computers.]
A forgivable error, perhaps, though basing a whole column on it is rather disturbing. But the part of the column that bugs me is farther down: “I have glanced out hotel room windows late at night, in a variety of cities, and been struck by the fact that lots of lights in lots of office buildings are still burning… why don’t we turn these things off?… Why, after all, go through the irksome annoyance of waiting twenty seconds for your computer to warm up each morning when you can have it at your immediate beck by leaving it on all night?”
Two different questions with two entirely different answers, but Bryson goes on to turn it into a discussion of American wastefulness with its natural resources. He may be reaching the right conclusion, but if so, he’s doing a 180 from where he started. To answer the latter question first, in modern computers with the Energy Saver features (which do nothing of the sort) turned off, it takes less power to leave a computer on all night than it does to shut it down and start it up. (To address another point he makes in the same passage, it’s also more efficient to leave cars running for short periods rather than turning them off and back on. Any electrical appliance requires something of an electrical security deposit to get started, just like an apartment renter has to put down “amount of monthly rent times three” or somesuch in order to move in. This has something to do with charging capacitors, I think, but I’m no electrical whiz.) The former answer takes longer, but the short version of it is that the Federal government, during the 1974 oil crisis, was taking out full-page ads in various magazines (I used to see them on a regular basis in Time) telling us that leaving lights on all night in buildings is what we SHOULD do, because electric lights give off heat, and at the time it was cheaper to heat a building by leaving its lights on and cranking the gas heat down six degrees or so. That situation went away with the end of the fuel crisis, of course, but the government never took those ads out in time.
Here’s where I get a little wonky with Bryson. The subtitle of the book is “Notes on returning to America after twenty years away.” If the number is, in fact, twenty, then Bryson was in the country when the Government was running those full-page ads. And thus, given that he’s all too well aware of the average Joe’s lack of common sense, he could have come to the same conclusion by poking fun at the fact that the average Joe never stopped leaving the lights on all night after the fuel crisis was over. But he doesn’t.
Humor is a wonderful thing (and let me hasten to say that there is a good deal of it here), but one of the prerequisites for humor of any sort should be that’s it’s based on fact. The humorist is, in many cases (and certainly in this one) using humor to get a point across, and doing so with factual errors leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Factual errors by ignorance leave less of a bad taste in my mouth than factual errors by design. That’s what I see in this essay, and it makes me wonder how many others, with circumstances with which I’m less acquainted in this book, are founded on the same sleight of hand. Perhaps one error shouldn’t taint my view of a whole book, but I can’t help it. After all, when an expert witness admits he falsified one fact in one trial that changed the outcome, how often do you think he’ll be getting called to testify after that?
I try to give Bryson the benefit of the doubt for most of it, because his heart’s mostly in the right place, and his brand of humor is the understated, easy kind that resides at the top of the humor heap. But I’ll never be able to read another word of Bryson’s without the 1974 energy crisis in the back of my head. **