Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik.  Free Press (2005), 288 pages.

The topic of the “big year” (a competition in which birders throughout the world compete to see who can spot the most species of birds within one calendar year) is very compelling, and I was sure I would love this book. I even knew where on my shelf I would place it when I was done—right next to The Devil’s Teeth and The Orchid Thief, in the section reserved for obsessives who focus solely on one aspect of the natural world and seek that single thing with complete devotion.  But then I found out that the writing is really deplorable.

First, the good things: the three birders the author focuses on are exactly right for the book. He sort of succeeds in teaching the reader about birds, their environment, and birding. (He’s about 70 percent there.) And he clearly explains why 1998 is the year that must be covered, even though it was a decade ago.

But the writing! Why can’t he describe an animal without relying on references to pop culture? Why can’t he compare two things without completely confusing the reader? Why doesn’t he understand that in a book about birding, the reader does not want constant references to media and commercialization?

1. The pygmy owl “weighed less than a pack of cigarettes.”  Is the author a heavy smoker with no concept of the fact that most nature lovers (the market for the book) think smoking is disgusting? It’s especially disgusting in nature. Now he has combined, in my mind, the image of a cute little owl in a tree with a rude creep blowing smoke next to the owl’s tree. There are so many other, far less distasteful, ways to describe the owl’s weight.

2. “…the keel-billed toucan, that screeching, big-honkered bird made famous by Froot Loops.” I almost threw away the book right here. I am mortally offended that the author thinks I, or anybody else who would buy this book, might not remember what a toucan is without a crass comparison to a stupid commercial. This is a book about birds. I really, really don’t want to be reminded of commercials! And anyone buying this book already knows what a toucan is! Incidentally, the word “honker” is unnecessarily disrespectful. Toucans have beautiful and correctly sized beaks, and there is no need to use a disparaging, fifth-grade insult such as “honker.” Things like this make me think the author doesn’t actually like birds that much. This is a serious problem for an author writing a birding book.

3. “The yellow rail was the Greta Garbo of the bird world.” This means nothing to me. I know she was a movie star (1950s? ’60s? ’40s?), but that’s about it. That is the crux of the problem. When an author relies on references to movie stars to explain a concept, he leaves behind all the readers who don’t share his media obsession.

4. “Maybe this really was a Bud Light commercial.”  The constant references to commercials (there are hordes of them) have no place in a nature book about birding. Likewise: brand names cheapen a book, they don’t add “authenticity” or “flavor” or whatever it is some people believe that they add. The following brand-name plugs all insulted me in the short space of just ten pages: Snickers, Wal-Mart, Spam, Wonder Bread, Jif peanut butter, Lipton, Mr. Salty pretzels. And if that’s not bad enough, I later suffered this, probably the worst sentence in the entire book, or any other book I’ve read in the last year: “Miller clicked his Netscape Navigator back over to www.travelocity.com.”

5. “Shearwater hurtled out and crushed Miller with a hug that would cost good money from a chiropractor.” Is this supposed to be a good hug? A painful hug? I don’t understand this hug. It’s very distracting. Anyway, in general, people should never “hurtle.” (Nor should they ever “nab” something, or “bolt” into a building.)

6.  “…as tall as a Coke can but without the fizz.” With regard to comparing a bird to junk food, I’m thinking again that the author doesn’t really respect birds. With regard to putting in a plug for Coke, see #4. With regard to “the fizz,” I have no idea what the author is trying to say. That completely mystifies me.

7. “He wasn’t supposed to feel like Evel Knievel every time a bill came due.” What?

This book was particularly disappointing because there was so much potential with the subject matter and characters. I wish it had had the depth of The Orchid Thief, or The Devil’s Teeth, and I wish the author would have expressed love and respect for birds (assuming he feels that?). I wish every movie star, media reference, and brand name could be removed. I wish there were more background information on specific birds and their environment. Why not provide the American Birding Association’s list of rules for the Big Year? I was wondering about that throughout the book.

This review first appeared in July 2008
By Donna Long