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Bill Bryson – Notes from a Small Island

February 4, 2013

2. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (1995)

Read By: Ron McLarty
Length: 11h 43m (326 pages)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Humor, Travel

Started: 14 January 2013
Finished: 25 January 2013

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? I like Bryson’s writing, and was in the mood for something light that I could listen to in little chunks.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 17 March 2009.

Bryson makes his way
around England, complaining
and fond all the way.

Summary: Bill Bryson moved to Britain in the seventies, met his wife, and lived in the UK for about 20 years. Now, when he is at the point of moving his family to the United States, he sets out to travel the country that he loves so well before he leaves it behind. He travels from south to north, mostly by train, to see the many disparate corners of England. He finds that despite its small geographic size, it is a country bursting with quirks and charm, history and modernity, and while there is much at which Bryson can poke fun, there is also much to love.

Review: I picked this book up because I needed something fun, something light, something which could keep me engaged when I was distractible, but which didn’t have an intricate plot that I needed to follow. And Bill Bryson is perfect for that, particularly Bryson’s travel writing. Every chapter or two he’s somewhere else, so I didn’t get lost when I needed to put it down and pick it up later, but I find his writing so engaging that I could listen for long stretches without wanting to switch to something else.

Plus, Bryson’s funny enough that it was able to lift my mood whenever I went back to it. This book was somewhat repetitive; it could easily be subtitled “In Which Bill Bryson gets cranky at modern architecture and the British Rail timetable system”. In fact, some of Bryson’s grumping is so repetitive that occasionally it was easy to lose track of exactly which little town that had replaced its historic buildings with bland glass-and-cement storefronts was currently making him wax curmudgeonish. This was probably not helped by the fact that as much as I am a cultural Anglophile, I have only been able to travel there briefly, and am not awesome at British geography. I could have really used a map with the various places that Bryson visits, or at least some of the larger ones, but that’s always a problem with audiobooks. (Not that the paper version has a map either, but had I been reading it I could have at least pulled up Google Earth.)

I also wonder how well this book has aged. Bryson’s trip is a portrait of Britain in the mid-90s; I wonder how much things have changed in the intervening 20 years. I only noticed one place where the age of the book was immediately obvious (to a non-native); it briefly mentions Princess Diana in the present tense. But while the fundamental nature of Britain may not have changed over the centuries, I have to believe that at least some aspects of its national character have evolved with the times. (Hell, when this was written, Harry Potter wasn’t even a gleam in Rowling’s eye.) I don’t think that Bryson could write another book updating his impressions without retreading worn ground, but it would certainly be an interesting comparison.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and it was a great fit for my mood at the time. It’s clear that Bryson loves England, and that his frustrations are born out of that love, and that makes it a simultaneously fun and charming read. As far as his country-in-a-book books go, I think I liked In a Sunburned Country a little bit better, since it was a bit more varied, but Bill Bryson travel books are always reliably good. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Recommended for Anglophiles with a snarky sense of humor.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: The Blue Bookcase, The Literary Omnivore, Things Mean a Lot, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: My first sight of England was on a foggy March night in 1973 when I arrived on the midnight ferry from Calais.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2013 8:22 am

    I found it a little dated when I read it (probably about seven or eight years ago), but some of what he writes is definitely still recognisable in Britain of the 2010s.

    • February 17, 2013 7:56 pm

      Ela – That’s sort of the problem with travel books – most will go out of date so quickly, but most people who read it aren’t locals and so won’t know any better.

  2. February 4, 2013 9:23 am

    This does sound entertaining. I’ve found that humorous books do tend to get repetitive.

  3. February 5, 2013 8:36 am

    I tried reading this years ago, and the complaining got to me. I love Britain despite its bad weather, tasteless food, etc. Maybe I just didn’t get Bryson’s humor enough, but I wanted something more positive in a travel read.

    • February 17, 2013 7:57 pm

      Curly – I think you have to be in the mood for Bryson, and know that underneath the grumping is someone who secretly does love the things he’s grumping about.

  4. February 5, 2013 8:33 pm

    I love Britain too, and I consequently felt fine about many of Bryson’s complaints and frustrated with many others. I think enjoyment depends a lot on whether you found the same things annoying that Bryson did. British weather was kind to me and so were the trains, but others of Bryson’s things were hilarious to me, like when he talked about London cabbies. All truth.

    • February 17, 2013 7:58 pm

      Jenny – Ahhh, I wish I’d spent more time there. I love British things, but I feel like three days over a decade ago are not enough to really form an opinion on British weather, trains, etc.


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