Monday, 16 March 2009

Made In America by Bill Bryson Review:

Readers from Toad Suck, Arkansas, to Idiotsville, Oregon--and everywhere in between--will love Made in America, Bill Bryson's Informal History of the English Language in the United States. It is, in a word, fascinating. After reading this tour de force, it's clear that a nation's language speaks volumes about its true character: you are what you speak. Bryson traces America's history through the language of the time, then goes on to discuss words culled from everyday activities: immigration, eating, shopping, advertising, going to the movies, and others.

Made in America will supply you with interesting facts and cocktail chatter for a year or more. Did you know, for example, that Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" credo has its roots in a West African proverb? Or that actor Walter Matthau's given name is Walter Mattaschanskayasky? Made in America is an excellent discussion of American English, but what makes the book such a treasure is that it offers much, much more.

A few weeks ago one of the teachers at my school mentioned a book she had read by Bill Bryson and she told me he had found a way to make history interesting and easy to read. In particular, she said it was funny how he would describe people and places and you'd think, "Hey, I know what he means." Maybe you've met somebody just like the person he describes.

The next time I was in the reading room I picked up one of his books. It was called Made in America. I was thinking that I probably wouldn't like it much. Since Bush, I've found it really hard to like Americans and it was going to be a big stretch for me to like reading about American history.

Anyway, I thought I'd read just a few pages. But a few pages became a few chapters and before I knew it I had read the entire book. Weird. Actually, I'm lying. There were parts I skipped. Sometimes Bill gets just a little too excited about some topics I'm just not interested in. For example, he will get very involved in the origin of words, but even as a language teacher I find he gets just a bit too enthusiastic sometimes.

That said, there are a lot of interesting chapters and I generally enjoyed most of the book. I found myself laughing out loud sometimes. It is interesting to know how things came to be in America and if you can start from the beginning and get a good feel for what has happened over the years there, I think it gets increasingly difficult to dislike Americans.

If you get a chance, you may want to take a quick flip through this book. It won't all interest you, but stuff like how Hollywood began might catch your eye.

3/5 Stars

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