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Review: The Big Year by Mark Obmascik

Review: The Big Year by Mark Obmascik post image

Title: The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
Author: Mark Obmascik
Genre/Format: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2004
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: Competitive bird watching is a real thing, and 1998 was a banner year for one of the sports’ oddest competitions.

One Sentence Review: The Big Year is an entertaining and well-paced look at an obscure hobby and the people who love it.

Why I Read It: It was on a clearance table at Half Price Books, and I love a good clearance find.

Long Review: Every year on January 1, a year-long competition that I’d never heard of begins in earnest. Called a “Big Year,” it’s a 365-day marathon of competitive bird watching where birders try to see who can see the most birds. The Big Year follows one especially bitter competitive year, 1998, when three completely different men battled for the win.

I’ve never been bird watching, nor have I ever had any interest in it. But I was intrigued by this book because I really love true stories about people who are obsessed with something. Reading about the lengths people will go to for their passions excites me – and gives me goofy anecdotes to share at parties.

This book is full of crazy stuff. Competitive birders doing a Big Year travel across the United States constantly, traveling thousands of miles for a glimpse of a single long-eared owl or a pink-footed goose. They go out to sea looking for a piping plover or climb mountains to see a Himalayan snowcock – it’s a level of passion I can’t even begin to understand.

This year, 1998, was a big Big Year for a couple of reasons. First, weather patterns with El Nina blew an amazing number of rare birds into North America for birders to see. And second, it was a year where three men decided to try a Big Year, which added to some of the intrigue.

Obmascik couldn’t have asked for three better main characters for his story. First, Sandy Komito, a celebrity in the bird-watching community who had money to burn and a reputation to uphold. Second, Al Levantin, a bird-watching hobbyist who waited 40 years for the perfect time to take a year off and try for a Big Year. And finally, Greg Miller, a single, software programmer trying to work a full-time job while looking for birds, with no money and no outside support. There’s a sort of David and Goliath bend to the story that’s really appealing.

In some of the blurbs, this book was compared to The Orchid Thief for just that reason, and I think it’s a relatively apt comparison. Both books look at what happens to people when they become obsessed with something, when they’re willing to give up most of the comforts of everyday life to follow a dream – or in some cases, a nightmare.

If that sort of thing interests you, The Big Year will definitely deliver. The book works because of a compelling competition, well-articulated competitors, and the effort to explain to outsiders what it means to try something that seems crazy.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jenny August 31, 2010, 8:37 am

    I am fascinated and bewildered. Do they have to photograph their finds, or is this all on the honor system?

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 7:58 pm

      Jenny: Some of them will photograph finds, but it’s really just an honor system. The guys on the Big Year would try to have another birder confirm their sightings if they were around, but it’s not required.

  • Steph August 31, 2010, 9:06 am

    This one sounds just zany enough that I’d probably enjoy it a good deal. I like non-fiction that’s a little left of center and that draws me into a world of experiences I’d otherwise never have for my own. Plus, you’ve got to love any book that has that super quest element to it! I’m going to keep this one in mind for my next library trip!

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:00 pm

      Steph: That’s exactly what I thought – just goofy enough to be interesting. And I love nonfiction for many of the same reasons, learning about things I wouldn’t get to learn about otherwise.

  • Trisha August 31, 2010, 8:22 pm

    I love books about real-life eccentric hobbies, so this sounds awesome!

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:00 pm

      Trisha: It was, and I love that kind of book too!

  • Man of la Book September 1, 2010, 7:31 am

    LOL, nothing better than a book at half price.


    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:01 pm

      Man of la Book: I’m such a sucker for cheap books, it’s ridiculous!

  • Sheila (Bookjourney) September 2, 2010, 7:21 am

    I love the topic of this book and that you found this treasure on a clearance table – that’s my kind of book shopping too…. love the little “unknowns” you may find!

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:04 pm

      Sheila: Finding odd little unknown books is one of my favorite things about browsing clearance sections of bookstores.

  • Jeanne September 2, 2010, 8:21 am

    This does sound odd and intriguing. I’m betting they don’t have to photograph, that it’s all honor system.

    After you read this is a good time to read the story “Sunbird” from Neil Gaiman’s collection M is for Magic. They pursue the Sunbird across the globe…and then they eat it!

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:05 pm

      Jeanne: Thanks for the Gaiman recommendation, I’ll look for that.

  • Care September 2, 2010, 8:57 pm

    Nope. Cannot do. I have my reasons.

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:05 pm

      Care: Lol. I’m curious now. Afraid of birds?