Made in America is a wet dream of a book for someone with an obsession for odd facts, language and America, in a nutshell: someone like me. Alex (my boyfriend, for those just tuning in) hates it when I start a new Bill Bryson because he knows that every sentence I utter for the next week will begin with, ‘Wow! Did you know…’ before I proceed to pour out my new found knowledge about 19th century brick patterns (see At Home) or volcanic activity at Yellowstone Park (see A Short History of Nearly Everything). Made in America, which charts the evolution of American English by way of the nation’s tumultuous, if brief, history and offers such little gems as:
‘Quite a number of Afro-American terms contain some forgotten sexual association. Boogie-woogie appears originally to have signified syphilis.’ (p.186)
‘It is often possible to tell the era of a product’s development by its ending. Thus products dating from the 1920s and early 1930s often ended in –ex (Pyrex, Cutex, Kleenex, Windex) while those ending in -master (mixmaster, Toastmaster) generally betray a late 1930s or early 1940s genesis.’ (p.286)
‘A raincheck was – indeed, still is – another name for a ticket stub. If the [baseball] game was rained out in the first five innings, the customer could gain free admission to any later match by presenting his raincheck. hence, the use of the term in the general sense of a deferred get-together.’ (333)
While these fun quotes may make the book seem flippant, the beauty of it is that it’s not. Byrson takes subject matter that rightfully belongs to a plummy, tweed-coated professor and turns it into an enthralling and, at times, downright hilarious read, as only he can do.
My one problem with Byson is that all of his books are crammed with so much information it becomes a bit overwhelming and I tend to forget 95% of it by the time I finish reading (I’ve taken to tagging points of interest as I go). That said, Made in America is light and fun and informative and doesn’t require the epic emotional investment much of the fiction I read does. This turned out to be an extremely good thing, as my year in books got off to a stumbling start.
Meanwhile, in the real world…
For the first time I can remember, I brought a feeling apprehension with me into the New Year. Normally, I’m all abuzz with resolutions and the kind of motivation that only comes from that special ‘fresh start’ feeling particular to January 1st. I also usually have something big to look forward to: a new semester, new job, travel, etc.
2013 was different. I stood on its edge with the same sense of grim determination I imagine seizes people about to cross the Nullarbor. There were no major events or challenges on the horizon and I had a vague sense that I was going the wrong way. I imagined that the arid sameness of the vast plain that was 2013 was only going to wear me down, when, in fact, there might be far more interesting topography just out of sight in another direction, but I didn’t know exactly how to find it. Admittedly, this was not a useful attitude.
Worse, the Christmas break had come smack bang in the middle of putting together the latest issue for the magazine I work for, so my fresh start was already muddied with unfinished business and loose ends.
However, I determined to make the best of it. I sensed ambitious new year’s resolutions would ultimately make my end-of-year self feel inadequate to my start-of-year self, so I scraped them in favour of a list of questions I need to be able to answer. I won’t bore you with them here, but needless to say, they all relate to direction.
This New Year’s Eve was one of the better ones. A group of us went to a friend’s mum’s house in the Adelaide hills, mucked around in the dam, played old-school drinking games and looked on while Alex and one of the other boys made a failed firework bomb. It was almost like we were eighteen again.
Back in Melbourne, I did little but work: magazine by day, thesis by night. Progress was slow. I was briefly cheered up by a surprise visit from my best friend and her boy friend who were road tripping from Queensland back to Adelaide along the coast. But ultimately my predictions about 2013 proved to be optimistic. A week-and-a-half after we’d returned to Melbourne Mum called me at work to tell me my grandpa had passed away that morning.
I have never felt so home sick in my life.
I finished Made in America on the plane back to Adelaide and thought ‘screw the calendar’. I needed a psychological fresh start. So my 2013 unofficially begins with book number two (perhaps rather fittingly): Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World.
Things that made my heart go BOOM!
— New Year’s