These are important questions, but sadly this is not our theme today, at least not specifically. No, our theme today, as we stand on the brink of the busiest retail week of the year, is shopping. To say that shopping is an important part of American life is like saying that fish appreciate water.
Apart from working, sleeping, watching TV and accumulating fatty tissue, Americans devote more time to shopping than to any other pastime. Indeed, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, shopping is now the number one holiday activity of Americans. People actually plan their vacations around shopping trips. Hundreds of thousands of people a year travel to Niagara Falls, it transpires, not to see the falls but to wander through its two mega-malls. Soon, if developers in Arizona get their way, holidaymakers will be able to travel to the Grand Canyon and not see it either, for there are plans, if you can believe it, to build a 450,000- square-foot shopping centre by its main entrance.
Shopping these days is not so much a business as a science. There is even now an academic discipline called retail anthropology whose proponents can tell you exactly where, how and why people shop the way they do. They know which proportion of customers will turn right upon entering a store (87 per cent) and how long on average those people will browse before wandering out again (two minutes and 36 seconds). They know the best ways to lure shoppers into the magic, high-margin depths of the shop (an area known in the trade as "Zone 4") and the layouts, colour schemes and background music that will most effectively hypnotise the unassuming browser into becoming a helpless purchaser. They know everything.
So here is my question. Why, then, is it that I cannot go shopping in America without wanting either to burst into tears or kill someone? For all its science, you see, shopping in this country is no longer a fun experience, if it ever was.
A big part of the problem is the stores. They come in three types, all disagreeable.
First, there are the stores where you can never find anyone to help you. Then there are the stores where you don't want any help, but you are pestered to the brink of madness by a persistent sales assistant, probably working on commission. Finally, there are the stores where, when you ask where anything is, the answer is always "Aisle seven." I don't know why, but that is what they always tell you.
"Where's women's lingerie?" you ask.
"Where's pet food?"
"Where's aisle six?"
My least favourite of all store types is the one where you can't get rid of the sales assistant. Usually these are department stores at big malls. The sales assistant is always a white-haired lady working in the menswear department.
"Can I help you find anything?" she says.
"No thank you, I'm just browsing," you tell her.
"OK," she replies, and gives you a smarmy smile that says: "I don't really like you; I'm just required to smile at everyone."
So you wander round the department and at some point you idly finger a sweater. You don't know why because you don't like it, but you touch it anyway.
In an instant, the sales assistant is with you. "That's one of our most popular lines," she says. "Would you like to try it on?"
"No, thank you."
"Go ahead, try it on. It's you."
"No, I really don't think so."
"The changing rooms are just there."
"I really don't want to try it on."
"What's your size?"
"Please understand, I don't want to try it on. I'm just browsing."
She gives you another smile - her withdrawing smile - but 30 seconds later she is back, bearing another sweater. "We have it in peach," she announces.
"I don't want that sweater. In any colour."
"How about a nice tie, then?"
"I don't want a tie. I don't want a sweater. I don't want anything. My wife is having her legs waxed and told me to wait for her here. I wish she hadn't, but she did. She could be hours and I still won't want anything, so please don't ask me any more questions. Please."
"Then how are you off for pants?"
Do you see what I mean? It becomes a choice between tears and manslaughter. The irony is that when you actually require assistance there is never anyone around.
At Toys `R' Us my son wanted a Star Troopers Intergalactic Cosmic Death Blaster, or some such piece of plastic mayhem. We couldn't find one anywhere, nor could we find anyone to guide us. The store appeared to be in the sole charge of a 16-year-old boy at the single active checkout till. He had a queue of about two dozen people, which he was processing very slowly and methodically.
Patient queuing is not one of my advanced social skills, particularly when I am queuing simply to acquire information. The line moved with painful slowness. At one point the young man took 10 minutes to change a till roll, and I nearly killed him then.At last my turn came. "Where's the Star Troopers Intergalactic Cosmic Death Blasters?" I said.
"Aisle seven," he replied without looking up.
I stared at the top of his head. "Don't trifle with me," I said.
He looked up. "Excuse me?"
"You people always say `Aisle seven.'"
There must have been something in my look because his answer came out as a kind of whimper. "But, mister, it is aisle seven - Toys of Violence and Aggression."
"It'd better be," I said darkly and departed.
Ninety minutes later we found the Death Blasters in aisle two, but by the time I got back to the till the young man had gone off duty. The Death Blaster is wonderful, by the way. It fires those rubber-cupped darts that stick to the victim's forehead - not painful, but certainly startling. My son was disappointed, of course, that I wouldn't let him have it, but you see I need it for when I go shopping.
Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson, published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99. Available from all major bookshops, and by mail order on 01624 675137Reuse content