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Review: Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

On the eve of moving his family from England to his native US, Bill Bryson decides to take one last trip around the country he’s lived in for nearly two decades. He journeys from the south of England up to John O’Groat’s in Scotland, exploring a myriad of historic and modern cities and landmarks along the way. He does so entirely on public transport, making an effort to disprove the complaints of Brits everywhere when they protest their trains and buses – which, to an American who has to drive just to get to a bus stop, are pretty exciting – and makes quite a few observations on British character along the way.

I’ve been enjoying Bryson’s memoirs for a few months now, but I think this one has been my favorite. It’s pretty easy to see why; like Bryson, I am also an American living in England. While I can laugh at the many absurdities of English people, as Bryson does, it’s pretty clear that both of us just absolutely love the country. Criticisms abound, but they are the criticisms you make of someone you love dearly – you can see faults, but that doesn’t diminish how you feel overall.

What’s really funny about this book is how accurate it is. The part about multi-storey car parks made me laugh so hard I actually cried (which amused my British husband to no end as well), because it was just so true. They do, in fact, always smell of urine in the stairwells, no matter how nice the place you’re visiting is. So many of his observations – even years on, when British Rail no longer exists – are still completely accurate. British people will unfailingly line up in neat queues without being told where to go. They do apologize to you before they complain about something that’s completely within their rights to have. They have a complete disregard for historic buildings because they have so many of them, something which has only lately begun to change. It’s all very true, in case you wonder as you read this.

Because you should read it if you are an Anglophile, and especially if you’re an American. There is much to love about the British isles and Bryson is far from immune to their charms, at least those of England, Scotland, and Wales. In addition to exploring the England of today, he looks back at older Englands, visiting towns affected by mining, commercialism, and even Milton Keynes, which was constructed after the world wars. One of the most moving passages in the book was his trip to one northern town, where the miners formed an art society. The art produced by these men wasn’t the best, but it was remarkably good and showed more the fact that they wanted to transcend life in the mine, even if it absorbed every minute of their scant leisure time. Even sadder was the fact that the club closed; not only did the mine close but modern life and the television set began to appeal more than spending time with a paintbrush and easel.

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is a love letter to England; it’s a careful look at what makes the people distinctive, the sense of history pervasive, and a hilarious take on modern life. If you’re an Anglophile like me, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.

10 comments to Review: Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

  • I wanted to love this book, but in the end I found Bryson’s tone too grumpy for me, even when he’s right. Perhaps I was feeling grumpy myself :P
    Nymeth´s last post …The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin

  • I read and loved Neither Here Nor There after you reviewed it, and now am excited to try this one. Bryson is so funny he makes me snort, which is a great feat indeed. I am going to have to check this one out very soon. Thanks for the incredible review!
    zibilee´s last post …The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton — 352 pgs

  • Isn’t there a book about those miners who formed an art club? I think there is; I vaguely remember seeing something about it.

  • I had mixed feelings about this book. I felt at times I could easily picture the places Bill referred to, but by the end I was over his voice and exploration. Glad to her you enjoyed the book though!
    Janel´s last post …Library Day in the Life Round 6 – Day 4

  • I love Bryson — and you’re take on this memoir (and the fact that I lived in the UK for a short time) has convinced me that this should be a must-read for me in 2011.
    Beth F´s last post …Weekend Cooking- Review- The Crabby Cook Cookbook by Jessica Harper

  • I think I had similar reactions to Nymeth and Janel – I started out amused and ended up being annoyed by his constant complaints, which I thought boiled down to “everything was better way back when!”. However I’ve heard from a lot of sources that A Walk in the Woods is really excellent, and I’ve read part of The Mother Tongue and enjoyed that. Maybe this just wasn’t the Bryson for me.
    Kate´s last post …Housekeeping

  • My British step-grandparents made me read this book before I went to study in London for 6mo and absolutely loved it. I’ve been a Bryson addict ever since. So glad you loved it too!
    Amused´s last post …Behind the Wheel

  • Well except for the fact that I do care about historical buildings everything you mentioned is so true! However I do think I’m of a more modern generation that believes we should protect our history so still see where he is coming from, many beautiful historical building were torn down in 1960/70s in my own home town, which is now frowned upon. The Brits are most definitely absurd, eccentric and too polite…but gotta love us for it I wouldn’t want us any other way :-)
    jessicabookworm´s last post …Poet’s Corner- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    • Meghan

      This is definitely changing, but it’s still not quite the same. For example, in York there are still medieval walls and they are completely unprotected. When I started grad school there our American professor took us around and we all agreed that in the US, the same wall would have been treasured and protected rather than left to sit in the middle of the busy town with no plaque.

  • Definitely on my TBR shelf to read soon. I am slowly becoming a Bryson groupie — I truly love his witty writing style and delightful narratives.
    Molly´s last post …Wordless Wednesday- Blizzard 2011