Wednesday, January 16, 2019

January's Book: Notes from a Big Country

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson
Journalism (1998 - 363 pp.)

Bill Bryson was born in Iowa in 1951. In the '70s, he moved to the UK, where he would spend his next two decades. Over the course of his career, he became an established travel writer and, later on, science journalist. During the mid-'90s, he, his wife and children moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth University. Bryson's impressions of returning to the USA after such a long absence are this book, one weekly column at a time for eighteen months from 1996-1998.

I can identify with Bryson in moving back to a home. I grew up in Toronto, lived in Ithaca, New York (another Ivy League home city), then lived in Edmonton, Alberta with a pit stop in Houston, Texas... all to move back to Toronto, where I am now. Coming back, it's all so different...

Bryson's most prevalent and hilarious theme is his return to American consumer culture. Advertisements featured in Notes from a Big Country include a character conveniently carrying hemmorhoid cream in his pocket while at a bowling alley, (37) a $39.95 (in 1997 dollars!) revolving tie rack (234), and an artery-clogging "chili cheese tater skillet" that is exactly what it sounds like. (297) How to acquire all these fantastic items has changed only slightly since the book's 1998 publication date. Bryson notes telemarketing, outlet malls and more detailed catalogues as three signs of increasing commercialization; (81) of the three, only outlet malls are relevant today despite their brick-and-mortar nature. As a child of the '90s, I remember telemarketing and catalogues well, but I went to an outlet mall last month. On a more heartwarming note, a now-defunct highway attraction called Roadside America consists of a scale model of a train set with surrounding people, animals and stores; it was a highlight to Bryson. (217) Notes from a Big Country would be nothing without great one-liners, though, and Bryson offers one of his best on commercialization: "CNN, as far as I can tell, has nothing but commercial breaks." (114)

Many of the issues Bryson confronts remain relevant in 2019. His commentary on rising American tuition costs for his newly matriculated son (212) ring truer with each passing year. (CNBC) (US News) (NCES) Airport security is comprehensive in a way someone in 1998 couldn't have envisioned. Observational humour with a slightly political bent has become so popular we're all saturated with it.

Bryson has written extensively on travel, so it is no surprise he has plenty to say about Americans' travel habits. I sympathize with his frustration at having no way to walk across the street from a mall to a bookstore, being forced to drive by virtue of the roads connecting the buildings. (157) His fury at incorrect travel guides on the UK had me in stitches; (190) I can only imagine what guides about Canada say. Fun fact: in Bryson's article on motels, he reveals that one of the original terms discussed for a motel was a "tourist court". (70) Amazing how things change. Although the popularity of motels has waned since the '90s, I stayed in a motel on Route 66 in Pasadena back in 2017.

One of Bryson's final statements is this quip: "Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding." (356) A few lonely times in Notes from a Big Country, I side with Bryson's irritating opponents. When Bryson is angry in an airport for being asked to show picture ID, I wonder why he doesn't carry picture ID anyway. He seems to have a driver's license, for example. (58) When he phones the Social Security Office to ask for his wife's SSN, and the person on the other end only agrees to divulge that information to Bryson's wife, (185) of course. I would never expect to be able to find out someone else's SSN. Likewise, when Bryson is exasperated at all the options '90s coffee shops have,* he could simply ask for a "drip coffee" or, worst case, an Americano, and receive a cup of coffee. (330)

Younger readers may miss a few of the experiences I share with Bryson. Bryson's frustration with a payphone, for example, (167) is something I've barely felt since 1998. Bryson's love of the since-demolished Des Moines theatre, (173) with its single screen and old-fashioned charm, reminds me of the also since-demolished Westwood Theatre in the west end of Toronto. I saw Titanic there for $2, funnily enough, during the time when Bryson was writing these columns. Y2K was everywhere in the late '90s, which inspires a short rant from Bryson, (231) but now there are registered voters who were born after Y2K's interest expired. The one reference that was too old for me was his detailed description of interwar-era diners, which, according to Bryson, were pre-manufactured in set designs and then shipped to site. (288) I've never eaten in a diner quite so formulaic before, but then, there's a lot of America I still haven't seen.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: Although this is my first Bill Bryson entry on this blog, I've read A Short History of Nearly Everything. I mention it as the end of this 2015 entry on 51 Eridani b, and I also mention it recently on Quora. As Notes from a Big Country predates A Short History of Nearly Everything by seven years, Bryson's other listed works didn't include anything I'd read.

ANOTHER NOTE: My dad loaned me this book. He also loaned me Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz, which I discussed three years ago this month. Apparently, January is the month to read my dad's books. Happy New Year indeed!

*The number of coffee shop options has snowballed since then.

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