Books: Notes from a Big Country, Bill Bryson
Sunday 15 November 1998
Think of these as Bill Bryson's answer to Alistair Cooke's Letter from America: a series of rambling jokes about the society that is the USA today. This latest addition to the rapidly growing corpus of Bryson's work in fact contains nothing new: it is a collection of his weekly columns, written between October 1996 and May 1998 for the Mail on Sunday. But unlike some of his travel books, these essays are not only hilarious but also insightful and informative.
Subject matter ranges from the private (emotional outpourings about the loss of his eldest son to a dollar-munching university and rants about design flaws in his computer keyboard) to the public (why American policy regarding drug offenders is stupid). One reason why this material is so appealing to a British audience is that Bryson knows exactly our prejudices regarding the USA and delights in confirming them.
Take lawyers for example: I have just learned from this book that the USA has more lawyers than the rest of the world put together, and that Americans file 90 million lawsuits each year. Then there is the delightful fact that Americans never walk. Typically, we get the story through not only statistics (eg that the average American walks only 350 yards a day), but also unmistakable Brysonian anecdote (inviting his neighbours to dinner and they drove). On the same theme, I have also learned that not one of the 500 children in Bryson's son's high school (except Bryson's son, of course) knew the name of the British Prime Minister. Great. It is similarly gratifying for a non-American to learn that a seminal moment in Bryson's life was arriving in Europe at the age of 21 and eating Belgian chocolate for the first time.
A slight snag is that the reader can never really know where genuine fact becomes ludicrous exaggeration. Did a woman really sue Walt Disney for the trauma her children suffered after they saw Disney characters taking off their costumes backstage? Did Bryson really do a book tour of American states, being interviewed along the way by 250 people, none of whom had read his book, or indeed any book? Was there really a note in his New York hotel room stating that "For your convenience a charge of 17.5 per cent will be added to all orders"?
Not that we should worry overmuch about journalistic detail in a book in which some chapters begin with apologies that Bryson can't write much because his wife has just cooked dinner.
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