I’ve been a fan of Bill Bryson’s ever since I read his highly-accessible popular science survey A Short History of Everything. His breezy writing style, palpable empathy, and droll humor immediately captured my attention and I’ve been on the lookout for similar books since then. In a Sunburned Country is the second book by Bryson I’ve read (I’ve since completed A Walk in the Woods and am slogging through At Home).
After debating whether I should buy the print or Kindle edition, I opted for the ebook, because the print font (to my eyes) was a little small and I like the idea of adjusting my fonts and doing electronic note-taking. The only thing I didn’t love were the maps, which were tiny and difficult to read. I suspect the print editions are clearer, but I didn’t look at them enough for this to be a hindrance. Broadway Books did a good job with the conversion, although they did disable the Kindle “clipping” function. (I’m now depending on the Cloud to keep my notes and marks safe.) You can navigate between chapters by clicking the forward button on your Kindle, or simply select a chapter from the table of contents. Overall, this was one of the better ebook reading experiences.
Australia, as Bryson points out, is an interesting place. While it seems to exist in the collective conscious as a mostly benign entity content to churn out violent sports (“in which brawny men in scanty clothing bloody each others’ noses”), movie stars, and country singers, there is a rich and varied cultural and natural history begging to be written about. What makes In a Sunburned Country compulsively readable is Bryson’s conversational style and sly anecdotes as he ambles from one location to the next—getting there is just as important as being there. As Bryson traverses the dangerous Outback (“a place where men and sheep were nervous”) and ventures around the coasts, he candidly writes about his experiences with the natives (particularly poignant are the sections about the Aborigines), provides bits of cultural commentary, offers scientific facts, and ruminates on Australian history. Bryson’s love for Australia emanates from the pages, even when he’s mocking its sports or scratching his head over its politics.
As he closes the book Bryson writes:
Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.
You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.