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Bill Bryson

Notes from a Big Country

Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 1998 | Review Added: 07-07-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

I suppose an author must be doing something right for me to read three of his books back to back. Notes from a Big Country is a compendium of Bryson's columns for the Mail on Sunday magazine that he wrote after his move back to the States in 1995. His motives for the move were mixed - a combination of deciding that life in the Yorkshire Dales, however charming on one level, was socially and professionally limiting, and a wish to give his English children a taste of the American Dream before they grew up.

So the family upped sticks to the small New Hampshire university town of Hanover. Bryson felt ambivalent:

I really didn't want to be there. I had nothing against America, you understand. It's a perfectly splendid country. But this felt uncomfortably like a backward step - like moving in with one's parents in middle age.

His wife, by contrast, loved "the ease and convenience of life, the friendliness of the people, the astoundingly abundant portions, the intoxicating notion that almost any desire or whim can be simply and instantly gratified." She liked the incessant injunctions to "have a nice day", about which Bryson set her straight: "They don't actually care what kind of day you have. It's just a reflex." "I know, " she replied, "but it's still nice."

Bryson grudgingly concurs. Exasperating though Americans' cultural ignorance and obtuse literal-mindedness can be, these characteristics are the correlaries of an openness and a generosity that visitors from Britain, habituated to ingrained attitudes of cynicism, gloom and mean-spirited envy, typically find very refreshing. In no country like America does the guest feel so generally accepted for who they are.

Once resettled in his homeland, Bryson rediscovers aspects of American life that he'd missed: the social acceptability of unhealthy eating, baseball, Thanksgiving, motels, and spacious houses that have basements. He loves the convenience gadgets that are now standard in American homes, king among which is the kitchen garbage disposal unit ("Chopsticks give perhaps the liveliest response [...] but cantaloupe rinds make the richest, throatiest sound and result in less 'down time'.").

Yet both he and America have moved on in two decades, and he finds himself living in a country familiar, and yet unsettlingly different from the one he left. Also there is the fact that "All the things one does as an adult - take out mortgages, have children, accumulate pension plans, develop in interest in household wiring - I had only ever done in England."

The less endearing aspects of American life, meanwhile, have got no better, and sometimes worse: the pervasive habit of physical idleness, commercial rapacity, litigiousness, unhelpful government agencies; above all, the public's aversion to critical thinking. A combination of these factors has yielded a situation in which a motel chain can advertise a "special offer" that applies to just two rooms among a hundred; a manufacturer of white bread can fund supposedly scientific research into the hypothesis that white bread helps people lose weight. (In fact, the results did not support the hypothesis, but the researchers' professed belief that they would have done "if the study had continued" is what made the headlines.)

There are pieces that cover New England specifically: the character of the seasons (even winter gets a surprisingly positive write-up), the abiding Puritan work ethic, a visit to the seaside in Maine. Bryson denounces the unsportingness of moose hunting ("I have encountered moose in the wild and can tell you that you could just about go up and kill one with a folded newspaper") and provides advice on how to deal with having your house sprayed by a skunk (basically, burn all your belongings and start again).

Making no demands of long-term concentration, the book can be zipped through in a few hours of reading. Bryson's tone is more humane and considered than in his early writing, and the jokes have more charm as a consequence. The writing retains its caustic edge, but this is usually directed at deserving targets, rather than deployed in subjective ranting about personal bugbears (viz. Neither Here nor There).

This book was published over twenty years ago, but the broad differences between American and British life remain. Incidentally, Bryson had always planned to returned to the UK, and did so in 2003. As he poignantly observes, one of the three things in life you can't do is go home again. (The other two are beat the phone company, and make a waiter see you before he's ready.)

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