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Thursday, May 20, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Big Year

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl ObsessionBack in March I somehow found myself without an audio book to read and I was not going to be at work that day. So, I popped in to my local public library and browsed the adult audio book section looking for something to read. I first came upon Aloft, which I wrote about here, but then, as I turned the corner, I saw The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.

Here is what I read on the back of the audio case:
"Every January 1, a quirky crowd storms out across North America for a spectacularly competitive event called a Big Year -- a grand, expensive, and occasionally vicious 365-day marathon of birdwatching. For three men in particular, 1998 would become a grueling battle for a new North American birding record. Bouncing from coast to coast on frenetic pilgrimages for once-in-a-lifetime rarities, they brave broiling deserts, bug-infested swamps, and some of the lumpiest motel mattresses known to man. This unprecedented year of beat-the-clock adventures ultimately leads one man to a record so gigantic that it is unlikely ever to be bested. Here, prize-winning journalist Mark Obmascik creates a dazzling, fun narrative of the 275,000-mile odyssey of these three obsessives as they fight to win the greatest -- or maybe worst -- birding contest of all time."
That's enough of the plot, I really want to talk about this book's appeal because on the surface it seems so specific. But I assure you, it is not. Quite the opposite, this book has an extremely wide appeal.

I will start by saying, I have no interest in bird watching, but this book intrigued me because it is part of the nonfiction subgenre beginning to be known as "a year in the life."  These are books which follow someone on some kind of quest for 1 full year. My favorite author of this type of book is A.J. Jacobs. Click here to see what I thought about his book on the year he spent living the bible, literally. You can also use this post to find links to more titles, by different authors from this subgenre.

The point here is, I love these 1 year quest books, especially when they are in a field or area in which I have little knowledge. So, from the start my interest was piqued. Keep in mind, authors like Jacobs have sold millions of books based on this very appeal.

The next two appeals were highly personal to me. First, the big year Obmascik is chronicling happened to also be my personal "big year." 1998 was the year I got married, bought my first house, and started library school. Basically it was the beginning of the life I am leading right now. It was great to read about what the competitors were doing in say April, and then thinking about how I was making an offer on what would be my first house at the same time.

The other personal appeal comes from the fact that my 5-yar-old son loves birds and birding. He will go outside to look for specific birds. He records the birds he finds. And, after reading this book, I know what I may be in for. Although this frightens me a bit thinking about where a birding obsession could take him, I also have a new understanding and appreciation for bird watching and am going to spend some time this summer encouraging our family to identify the birds we see all together.

Great for you Becky, many of you are saying, but how does this personal information you are sharing help us to help patrons better? Great question. The answer: it serves as an example of getting the books into people's hands to read the "flap." If I were helping a patron like myself who had just read Jacobs' books and enjoyed them, I would book talk Obmascik's book from the "a year in the life" angle and then get the book in his or her hands as I got into the details. You can not know ahead of time what detail will draw a patron to a book, but you have to get the conversation started and then let them have a moment to handle the title, read the covers and flaps to see if it "speaks" to them and their personal tastes.

Also it is a reminder of the wealth of treasures from our libraries' backlists. This book was amazing, but it was published in 2004, so it has lost it's "new" luster. I think it is engaging, interesting, and different. Many people would enjoy reading this book, even if they don't care for birds or bird watching. The appeal goes way beyond the birds here.

This is a character centered nonfiction title. The three men on their "Big Year" are all intimately portrayed by a seasoned journalist. Obmascik spends time going into the background of each man, detailing their lives, and how they came to bird watching. He also speculates on their motivations and the psychology behind their need to do this.

In terms of pacing, Obmascik brilliantly starts off slowly, giving each man large sections to themselves, but then as the year, and subsequently, the race to find more birds speeds up, Obmascik speeds up the story telling. Each man holds the spotlight for less time, their trips and personal quests start overlapping, time is running out, and you can't stop turning the pages to see what happens.

Toward the end there is also a great scene describing a perilous helicopter ride to see 1 bird. Obmascik's skill as a journalist capturing the details really comes in handy here. Obmascik also interjects just the right amount of humor into this book without becoming snarky.

Finally, you cannot forget the detailed frame here: Birds. I learned so much about the native birds of our country, and those who have come here by mistake. I learned about migration patterns, remote islands off of Alaska, and sea birds. I also learned quite a bit about El Nino (which was instrumental in making 1998 such a great birding year). People who like to learn about new things, interesting places, or natural history will love this book.

Three Words That Best Describe This Book: Birds, Quest, Character-Centered

Readalikes: Besides A.J. Jacobs and the books and authors I suggest here, some other similar authors who are journalists (so their writing style is similar) and write about real people on quirky quests that appeal to a wider audience would be David Grann, Stephan Fatsis, and Susan Orlean. Any titles by these authors would work here.

Obmascik's writing and his way of elevating what seems so odd and ordinary to a celebratory status also reminded me of the work Simon Winchester and Mark Kurlansky do with their Microhistories. If you have access to NoveList you can see more about what I have to say about these two authors in my readalike articles for them both.

One book you will definitely want to get from the library after reading The Big Year is Peterson's Field Guide to Birds of North America (the creation of which is also chronicled in Obmascik's book). It, or a version of it, is available at every public library.

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