In summer 1996, Bill Bryson received a phone call from a friend working at the Mail On Sunday, who asked him to write a column about America for the paper’s ‘Night and Day’ magazine. Despite protesting that he really didn’t have the time, or the inclination, Bill ended up writing these columns for the next 18 months. They appear in the book as in the original magazine and in the original order.
In ‘Notes From A Big Country’, the reader is offered a multitude of snippets about Bryson’s everyday life and observations in America and his unique take on them. A vast range of topics are covered, ranging from Christmas decorations to spray on cheese, computers to presidents.
My personal favourite of these has to be the column about Bryson receiving a new computer, in which he proceeds to parody with rather amusing accuracy the jargon used within the old manuals for desktop computers and the confusions of being confronted with DOS. Bryson is clearly getting increasingly frustrated through the process, describing an installing process in the following way ‘Warning: selecting ‘Continue’ may result in irreversible file compression, permanent loss of memory and a default overload in the hard drive. On the other hand, selecting ‘Abort’ will require you to start the whole tedious, maddening installation process all over again. Your choice.’. He also gives a mocking description of how to use some of the existing programmes : ‘Advice on Using the Spreadsheet Facility: Don’t.’
When I picked this up, I was expecting it to follow the same style as Bryson’s first travel book ‘Notes From A Small Island’ in which he tours Britain, however, this book focuses on little incidents in daily life following Bryson’s return to America rather than a trip around the country.
As mentioned above, Bryson is his usual sarcastic witty self within the book, however, compared with his travel books this feels very lacking. I believe this may be because, unlike when writing a novel, here all the ‘chapters’ were articles and Bryson was faced with a word restriction, meaning that each article has to be concise. In doing this, I feel part of Bryson’s style is lost simply because he cannot really wander off on little tangents within his writing – something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in his other work. The articles are good, but equally, for a book I prefer chapters to at least have some kind of flow through whereas here each article is pretty much a stand alone piece without a definite link to the previous one.
Overall? It’s enjoyable and a relatively quick read given it’s easy to pick up and put down if you only have a few moments. I would, however, say if you are reading this as your first Bryson book that it is not a marker for most of his work. If you really wish to see him at his best, I recommend ‘Notes from a Small Island’ or ‘Down Under’ where he is unconstrained at his usual rambling sarcastic self throughout.