Thursday, April 23, 2015

Notes From a Big Country - by Bill Bryson

This collection of essays was originally published as a series of columns about the United States for the U.K. publication the Mail on Sunday's Night and Day magazine in the late 1990s. Although some references are a bit dated now (e.g. floppy disks, woes of land-line telephones) the anecdotes were still laugh-out-loud funny. My husband and I read these together over the course of the long winter. The right-on-target observations about life in the USA in Bryson's inimitable style were the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums we experienced in New England this year. As a bonus, Bryson mentioned libraries in six of his essays

In "Well, Doctor, I was Just Trying to Lie Down" Bryson begins with some information from one of my all-time favorite reference books The Statistical Abstract of the United States. His discussion of the number of people injured (400,000) by beds, mattresses, and pillows segues into what he learned from the Abstract 's"Table No. 206: Injuries Associated with Consumer Products" which he specifically says he found in his local library while "looking up something else altogether". This is what is so great about the print version of the Abstract. It is an absolutely fabulous browsing book. Before there was FaceBook to waste time on, there was the Statistical Abstract.

Explaining American's penchant for rules in "Rule Number 1: Follow All Rules" he describes his frustration in the constant changing of rules without warning. The first time he found out about airline rules regarding showing a picture ID before boarding (and this was pre 9/11) he was at an airport checking in for a flight. He discovers that he has "all kinds of identification - a library card, credit card, Social Security card [remember when we used to carry those around with us?], health insurance card, airline ticket" all had his name, but none had his picture. He illustrates his priorities so well - here - 120 miles away from home, he did not bring a driver's license, but he did carry his library card.

American's love affair with cars is treated in "Why No One Walks". Like me, Bryson chose to live in a place "within walking distance of shops." He describes Hanover, New Hampshire as a "typical New England college town, pleasant, sedate, and compact. It has a broad green, an old-fashioned Main Street, nice college buildings with big lawns, and leafy residential streets. It is, in short, an agreeable place to stroll. Nearly everyone in town is within a level five-minute walk of the shops" yet, he explains, no one walks, except him. He walks "nearly every the post office or the library or the local bookshop". Bryson and I are rare breeds here in the United States. Driving is something I know how to do, but will avoid whenever possible.

On informality in America (in "Help for the Nondesignated Individual") Bryson extols the wonders of living near the campus of Dartmouth College
one of the Ivy League colleges, like Harvard and Yale - but you would never guess it.
None of its grounds are off limits...Indeed much of it is open to the community. We can use the library attend its concerts, go to its commencement exercises if we want.
This, of course is how it should be. Living and working in a college town myself I know how contentious town/gown relations can be. Opening events, and the library, up to the local community is not only a good PR move, it is the right thing to do. One of the first papers I wrote in library school was on community use of academic libraries. I think any college or university, public or private, has an obligation to allow at least some use of its library facilities to the local community.  I am glad to say that the university library in which I work allows free borrowing privileges to anyone who lives in town.

There is little that gets my geographer husband and I more excited than reading something that entwines his passion for places and mine for books and libraries together. So you can only imagine the magical evening we had after reading "Where Scotland is and other Useful Tips" in which Bryson tells of going to the library in order to "look at the travel section." There he found "four books exclusively on Britain, plus another eight or so on Europe generally, with chapters on Britain". Ultimately he discovers that "what Americans know about Britain is pretty much nearly nothing..."

And, finally, in "The Fat of the Land" Bryson describes his misadventures in dieting and a trip to the library to find a book with a better diet than the bran and water diet one his wife invented for him. He settles on a work titled Don't Diet which he reads in "that reading area that libraries set aside for people who are strange and have nowhere else to go in the afternoons but none the less are not quite ready to be institutionalized..."

While there are no other libraries to write about, my reference librarian self would be remiss if I did not correct the mistake Bryson makes in his essay about our shared favorite holiday - Thanksgiving - in "The Best American Holiday." He provides some history of the pilgrims, and when President Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863 to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, however; Bryson then goes on to say that "there it has stayed ever since." This is not quite true, in 1939 President Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday of the month. While the fourth Thursday is often the last one, in years in which there are five Thursdays in the month Thanksgiving remains on the fourth. This ensures that there are always at least four full (shopping) weekends before Christmas.

While probably not what most would suggest for date night, I highly recommend reading this with a romantic partner. Laughing together is a wonderful aphrodisiac. My husband was happy to see that I found another of Bryson's books (A Short History of Nearly Everything) for us to read together. If there are any libraries in that one you will no doubt find out about it here. For more Bryson fun, I also recommend A Walk in the Woods

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