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The Big Year

Emily Braunstein



Hands up if you think bird watching is exciting.
Yeah, that’s pretty much what I figured. But read this book and you might very well change your mind.
The Big Year is the story of three men engaged in a competition of the same name. The goal: to identify the most species of birds in North America in a 365-day period. And don’t be thinking frail old men standing in fields with binoculars, either; these guys risk life and limb, suffer physical illness, and engage in activities that would have their place in X Games – as well as spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – in the pursuit of avian glory. It’s a grand, grueling and highly competitive sport and, in the hands of Mark Obmascik, a riveting read.
Obmascik follows the stories of three men who competed in the 1998 Big Year, each with strikingly different biographical detail. There is the previous winner, trying in his arrogance to beat his own record; the recent retiree, living out his dream; and the broke, bereft divorcee, squeezing birding time in between writing computer code for a nuclear power plant. In telling their stories, which start out as being very separate then dovetail closer and closer together as the book strides toward its conclusion, Obsmascik hits the balance between describing a sport and weaving a well-plotted tale. The suspense is, towards the book’s conclusion, almost unbearable – will the snarky former-winner manage to sneak in again? Or will our beloved underdog manage to take the title? This is compelling stuff, and you don’t have to know anything about birds to enjoy it – although don’t be surprised if you find yourself learning a bit along the way. As a journalist, Obmascik’s writing style also neatly straddles the boundary between reportage and plot, though I could have done with a few less bird-oriented puns (“The first time I met a real birder, I couldn’t tell a tit from a tattler”, reads the book’s opener, and so they continue in this one-line manner). On the whole, however, Obmascik’s writing is entirely conducive to this topic, providing an adrenalin hit to match that of the competition itself.
The Big Year is a surprisingly exciting, engrossing read, and best read in the first couple of weeks of uni, before you have assessment due in – I found it un-putdownable.
The Big Year
By Mark Obmascik
Random House $26.95