Notes from a Small Island

by Bill Bryson

Hardcover, 1996

Call number

914.104 BYR

Collection

Publication

William Morrow (1996), 324 pages

Description

Essays. Travel. Nonfiction. Humor (Nonfiction.) HTML: Before New York Times bestselling author Bill Bryson wrote The Road to Little Dribbling, he took this delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation of Great Britain, which has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey..

User reviews

LibraryThing member sturlington
While there are some genuinely funny bits in Notes from a Small Island – the opening gambit about driving in Britain comes to mind – this travelogue is largely tedious. Bryson moves from dreary small town to dreary small town, from hotel to indistinguishable hotel, until they all run together,
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and the reader begins to wish the trip was over already. The main thing the book lacks is a unifying theme, a point to it all. I know Bryson can do better.
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LibraryThing member ABVR
My third try at reading something by Bill Bryson and -- like the last two -- I was unable to get more than about 50 pages into it before losing interest. He thus joins Kim Stanley Robinson and a select few others on my list of "authors who, despite their obvious talent and enormous popularity, do
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nothing for me."

Bryson's signature travel-writing style strikes me as a blend of three things: 1) A "game-but-hapless schlub" persona that may be the real Bryson or may be a put-on; 2) Elaborate, almost Dickensian descriptions of colorful characters and settings he encounters along the way; 3) Comic exaggeration that starts where Mark Twain went in his more unbuttoned moments and winds up somewhere on the far side of Dave "I am not making this up" Barry . . . and that, I think, is why I find his work off-putting.

Game-but-hapless schlubs and cringe comedy (in which Bryson often traffics here) are, for me, anti-entertaining. Dickens-style baroque characters with improbable names are marvelous if done well, but (again, for me) they only work if the author, and all the characters around them them, treat them as essentially normal . . . but Bryson-the-author always feels like he's waving and pointing from the margins, saying: "Look! A caricature!" I'm always up for a well-done example of the comedy of overstatement -- Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" remains the funniest thing I've ever read -- but outside of a novel it is (last time: for me) virtually impossible to carry off at book length. What's funny in a 1,000-word column or 3,000-word article goes flat in a 100,000 memoir.

If you've never read Bill Bryson, don't let this put you off. Millions of people love his books, and--statistically speaking--your literary tastes are more likely to align with theirs than mine. If, however, you've tried reading him and can't figure out why he leaves you cold . . . maybe this is why.
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LibraryThing member nmhale
What an utterly wonderful way to travel a country, vicariously. Bryson's humor is disarming, and his writing clean and easy to read. The way he describes the various parts of the country clearly demonstrates that he loves this England that he lived in for ten years, loves it enough to treat it with
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both praise and affectionate criticism. Whether he is extolling the virtues of certain under-appreciated areas, or sharply undermining cities that he finds obnoxious or well below expectations, you almost have the feeling of a parent towards a child, both praising and admonishing. Bryson doesn't shy away from his own faults and virtues either; many anecdotes focus on the close and personal, relating almost all the geography he traverses to his own life in some way. This correlation makes the experience much more human and intimate.

I haven't read a travel essay in a long time, and those I did read weren't even from this century, so this was a new reading experience. I loved it! Who knew that nonfiction could be so engrossing? (Sorry, nonfiction fans, that's just my personal bias of fiction coming out.) I will definitely be reading more by Bryson. In fact, I think if I do another book challenge, I will create a travel category. The only bad thing about reading this book was that now I want to go to England, and see all the places for myself!
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LibraryThing member emhromp2
Bill Bryson is hilarious, he had me laugh out loud many times in this book, causing people to look at me wondering what the hell I was reading - especially since I read it as an ebook.
I do so admire his sense of humour, and also his knowledge about everything, or so it seems. I like it that he
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doesn't pretend to be friendlier than he actually is. Of course, I know (and hope) he didn't really treat the mcDonalds employee that rudely, although I would understand if he had. I was in hysterics about his frustrations about never having interesting and uplifting conversations with strangers on trains, I feel the same way!
I learned a lot from this book about Great Britain, especially since I'm Dutch and only slightly acquainted with that lovely country.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
I very nearly didn't finish this after about the sixth time Bryson arrives in some British town, gets to his hotel, finds it or the staff lacking in some way, walks outside, finds the town or the people or the food lacking in some way, eats a subpar meal, goes back to the hotel, goes to bed, gets
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up, complains about the breakfast, wanders around the town some more finding things to whine about, lather, rinse, repeat. It all got to be annoying after not very long. Eventually I guess I got into the rhythm of it and didn't mind so much, and I did finish the book, but it proved rather more of a slog than I wanted.

Bryson's humor is of that variety which makes me laugh on occasion, but the funny bits here are stuck in amongst so many moments where he's behaving like an idiot, complaining pointlessly, or being a chauvinistic twit that it was hard to separate the amusing from the obnoxious. While some of anecdotes and inserted historical trivia were fascinating, I'm still not sure whether the book was entirely worth the time.
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LibraryThing member msjoanna
There is no doubt that Bryson is a talented writer. He manages to make small observations amusing and is able to convey a sense of place beautifully. Notes from a Small Island is not, however, one of his better books. He really just doesn't do much of anything on his travels. He shows up in lots of
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small towns in off-season and observes that there isn't much to do or see. Only recommended for those who've spent time in small British towns and wish to revisit the memories or Bryson's most die-hard fans.
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LibraryThing member KeithJenner
This is possibly my all time favourite book. I'm not saying that it is groundbreaking or anything like that, just a very fun read.

I find Bill Bryson's style of writing very refreshing, and whilst there may not be many laugh out loud moments, I find an almost constant smile on my face whilst reading
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his work (or listening to the audiobooks in the car). It has been mentioned in an earlier review that Brysons cynicism can seem a bit forced, which I don't see at all. To me it comes across as good observational humour and I agree with most of it and wouldn't consider myself to be overly cynical.

In this book, Bryson takes a journey round Britain, visiting various places both well known and obscure. Obviously the fact that I know a lot of the places is relevant and is probably one of the reasons this is my favourite Bryson travel book.

Overall an extremely good read which I would recommend to everyone.
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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
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,
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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.
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LibraryThing member flissp
Bill Bryson is a very observant, funny man!

Somehow manages to write about his time in the UK in a very sympathetic light, whilst simultaneously making fun of the people and places. Think he needs to give Cambridge another go on a sunny day though!

Coming back to this review, just want to add that
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I'm also English and wasn't remotely offended by it!
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LibraryThing member Jadesbooks
I started this book and had to put it down before getting halfway through. I'm not sure what to make of Mr. Bryson. I bought this book after reading the first couple of pages in the bookstore, and was really looking forward to reading the whole thing. Now, I'm not sure. I may be overly critical,
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but I'm not sure if I'll finish this book.
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LibraryThing member dubflicker
Bryson is usually pretty hilarious-the passage about his job at a newspaper is pretty excellent-but his style is mostly suited for noting minor (yet revelatory) quibbles, which can start to feel really oppressive and soul-deadening after a while (see Dave Barry, James Lileks.)
LibraryThing member literarysarah
I'm a fan of Bill Bryson's books and I'm a confessed Anglophile so this was a perfect read for me. Some of his anecdotes are so funny I had to read them aloud to a friend. However, my favorite moments occur when his satire shines through without any unnecessary explanation. "So I shot her. Then I
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returned to the car and drove on."
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LibraryThing member maneekuhi
I'm a bit of an Anglophile, plan to do a tour similar to the one described here, have visited London a few times and enjoyed it immensely, and read a number of novels by Brit authors - so I was looking forward to reading this book very much. And was very disappointed before I got to page 100.
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Bryson had lived in England for 20 years and was preparing to return to his native USA soon after this trip - and perhaps that was part of the problem for me. He was too British. He didn't have the sense of excitement, awe, wonderment, discovery that a person less familiar with the villages and cities would. And in exchange, we got a fair amount of boring detail. Some of the book was amusing, eg, a Brits penchant for discussing directions from here to there ad nauseum, but there were not enough such moments. And I felt that major portions of his own trip had bored him. Other passages were a bit nasty, e.g., his description of putting down a McDonald's clerk in Edinburgh - what was he thinking when he included this cranky episode? Someone gave me Bryson's "A Walk in the Forest" or whatever - I think it'll be a long while before I crack that open.....
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LibraryThing member frank_oconnor
Get train. Go to place. Find hotel. Describe hotel. Repeat over and over again until the reader's head bleeds with the sheer tedium of it all. Very strong on generalised insights about Britain and the British. A lot of comic exageration and far too much whining. Quite tedious, but interesting
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enough.
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LibraryThing member ashergabbay
One word kept coming to mind while I was reading this book: "tarchan". It is a word in Hebrew than I find difficult to translate into English. Perhaps fussy or fastidious or maybe even nit-picker would help to convey its meaning. Bill Bryson reveals himself to be a real tarchan in this book,
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fastidious to the point of being almost unbearable to read. Considering I loved the only other book I had read by Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything - it was even more disappointing to find out that he can be such a fussy fellow.

Notes From a Small Island is a travelogue. After living in England for almost 20 years and before moving back to his native USA, Bryson took a seven-week trip around Britain - from Dover in the South to John O'Groats in the North - in order to "analyse what precisely it was he loved so much about" this small island. The book gets off to a brilliant start, with Bryson recounting his first arrival to England on a ferry from Calais to Dover and his first experiences with British culture and people. This first encounter is written beautifully and Bryson fulfills the promise of the quote from The Times on the front cover: "not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts". But then something goes terribly wrong.

It is obvious Bryson loves Britain. He also loves the British people and their sense of humour. Appropriately, he mimicks that sense of humour in the way he tells his story. However, he misses one important, indeed crucial, aspect of the British raison d'etre: the understatement. Just like a typical American (and I apologise for the generalisation) he overdoes it. Page after page, city after city, Bryson whines and moans about things he does not like. At first, it is funny and somewhat endearing; very quickly it becomes tiresome and annoying. Very quickly I was asking myself: how can Bryson love Britain as much as he says he does, if he feels so much is wrong with it? I guess it is OK to be critical of the subject of your infatuation, but it is quite another to bash it around mercilessly and endlessly.

Here are some random examples:

... Lulworth wasn't anything like I remembered. Its central feature was a vast and unsightly car park, which I had quite forgotten, and the shops, pubs and guesthouses along the street to the cove were dusty and looked hard up... (I) made a small, heartfelt vow never to return to Lulworth as long as I might live (pp. 125-127)

Exeter is not an easy place to love... there seemed to be no reastaurans in Exeter... Exeter was in a foggy glooom that didn't do anything for its appearance (pp. 133-135)

There are certain things that you have to be British or at least older than me, or possibly both, to appreciate... I'm not saying that these things are bad or boring or misguided, merely that their full value and appeal yet eludes me. Into this category, I would also tentatively insert Oxford (p. 152)

My gripe with Oxford is that so much of it is so ugly (p. 154)

I didn't hate Milton Keynes immediately, which I suppose is as much as you could hope for the place (p. 176)

Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well (p. 196)

My problem with Manchester, you see, is that I have no image of it, none at all (p. 224)

And so on and so forth, ad nauseam. I avoided quotes about how miserable Bryson felt because of the weather, the food, the service, the trains, the architecture and God knows what else. I think you get the picture.

Interestingly, in the concluding chapters of the book, as Bryson tours Scotland and the northernmost areas of the British Isles, the tone changes and the mood is palpably more positive and upbeat. Alghouth he does not stop the whining completely (I suppose that would be too much to ask for) it does get considerably smaller and further apart. Perhaps it was the indecipherable Scottish accent that made him less angry at everything and everyone. Or perhaps he was just happy to be getting close to the end of the trip and being put out of his misery.

I still think Bryson is a good storyteller and I believe I will be reading more of his books. I just wish Notes From a Small Island would not have been my first dip into the world-famous Bryson travelogue books. The bad taste will remain with me even if his other books do turn out to be less annoying.
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LibraryThing member AliceaP
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson chronicles the walking expedition that the author took across Great Britain right before he moved back to the United States. I loved how his enjoyment of the countryside (particularly Yorkshire) came through in his beautiful descriptions. If he had only
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stuck to his descriptions of the idyllic countryside and the interesting monuments and things that he saw there I would have enjoyed this book. Instead he interjected his beliefs/prejudices/stereotypes about different groups of people and it really turned me off of the entire book. The first note that I wrote after reading this was simply "I don't like Bill Bryson."

What he poked fun of (a shortlist):
fat people (fat shaming a family at a restaurant and staring so much they moved tables)
Asperger's (a trainspotter widower he met was too excited about trains apparently)
Lewis Carroll (described him as a "poor perverted mathematician" when pedophilia was only rumored never proven)
Parkinson's (need I say more?)
The only good things that came out of this is that I'll probably visit Warwick Castle and Snowshill Manor in the future...and I'll never read anything else from Bill Bryson.

For another viewpoint, check out the critique of A Walk in the Woods by Mary Jean Ronan Herzog entitled "Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods" in the Journal of Appalachian Studies Vol. 5 Issue 1.
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LibraryThing member ukbookgirl
Absolutely spot on! Bryson totally pegs the British in all their eccentric (and charming) glory.
LibraryThing member cyderry
I have to agree with Kay Dekker, I couldn't gt through this book and it's the second one by this author that I've tried. Guess I'm not one of his fans.

Athe only funny line I heard was when he explained why he was taking public transit because his wife wouldn't let him take the car.
LibraryThing member JeffV
Humorist Bryson tours the British Islands one last time before repatriating his family to the US. I suspect this book is much more amusing for those who have been there, done that, or are British themselves. Some of the characterizations I've seen in Brits that I know, but I don't know enough of
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the social geography to tie manner and behavior with specific cities or regions. What I like most about Bryson is the way he can spin the mundane into stories that are more entertaining, if not more interesting. His technique is a good one for story tellers to learn; I always find his stuff worthwhile even when the subject matter doesn't exactly resonate, as in this case.
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LibraryThing member KayDekker
I'm sorry to have to say that I loathed this book. It's almost as though Bryson had deliberately set out to find examples of every cliché and misperception that Americans (are supposed to) have about the UK. I oscillated rapidly between feeling insulted and patronised. It saddens me that someone
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who has lived here for more than 20 years, and who seems to proclaim his love for the UK on every other page, can trot out such cheap and threadbare stuff. Is all his other travel writing like this?
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LibraryThing member Muscogulus
Bryson is an American humorist who married an Englishwoman and started a family with her in the UK. This book marks the occasion when, after some 20 years, he was about to move Stateside with his British family. So the book documents his lonely, eccentric farewell tour of the scepter’d isle.

He
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spends most of his time taking trains to towns that Yanks seldom visit, at a time of year when most Britons stay home. Now and then he'll stumble on something like a historic site or tourist attraction, but as often as not it’s locked up tight, closed for the day or for the season. But hey, this isn’t Fodor’s or Lonely Planet. The point of the book is to see Britain, not as a tourist, but through the eyes of the author, who presents himself as a befuddled, moody, and flatulent pub crawler. I mean, what's not to love?

Throughout, Bryson affects a cunning naiveté, constantly putting himself down as if by accident, both during his tour and while reflecting on his earlier life in Britain. For example, here is his fond reminiscence about the moment, during an internship at a mental hospital, when he first laid eyes on his future bride: "At the far end of the room, there moved a pretty young nurse of clear and radiant goodness, caring for these helpless wrecks with boundless reserves of energy and compassion — guiding them to a chair, brightening their day with chatter, wiping dribble from their chins — and I thought, This is just the sort of person I need."

Of course, the real Bill Bryson is not as clueless as the persona he uses in his books. He is, however, a genuine Anglophile, and his writing has an English flavor. The book seems to be directed as much toward British as American readers. (Since reading it, my wife and I have adopted "Oo, lovely!" as an ironic catchphrase.)

I'm not quite sure whether Anglophiles will be more likely to enjoy or resent this book. As a moderate Anglophile, I thought it was fun, except at moments when Bryson began sounding like the Prince of Wales whinging on about soulless modern architecture. Two or three such lectures might even have been endurable, but I think there were at least six, each as humorless as the last. Ah, well, it was still worth it. The book would probably reward a second reading.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
I first read this in eleventh grade in high school, after randomly picking it off a list our English teacher presented to us in the hope it would be some kind of desert island tale. The island in question, of course, is actually Great Britain; Notes From A Small Island is a travelogue covering
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Bryson’s “valedictory tour” around the nation he made his home for nearly twenty years.

Any Australian growing up naturally develops a sort of hazy idea of what the UK is like, in the same way that anybody anywhere grows up with a hazy idea of what the US is like, but Notes From A Small Island probably filled in my mental map a bit more than Harry Potter or Monty Python films. Bryson travels by train across the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales, filling the pages with his usual wit.

I had never had a biscuit of such rocklike cheerlessness. It tasted like something you would give a budgie to strengthen its beak.

At the Old Times building on Gray’s Inn road, the canteen had been in a basement room that had the charm and ambience of a submarine and the food had been slopped out by humourless drones who always brought to mind moles in aprons.


Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are early on, when Bryson sprinkles his modern-day trip around Britain with memories of his early life there in the 1970s and 1980s, such as when he was involved in the Wapping dispute:

How odd, I thought, that a total stranger was about to pull me from my car and beat me mushy for the benefit of printworkers he had never met, who would mostly despise him as an unkempt hippie, would certainly never let him into their own union, and who had enjoyed decades of obscenely inflated earnings without once showing collective support for any other union, including, on occasion, provincial branches of their own NGA. Simultaneously it occurred to me that I was about to squander my own small life for the benefit of a man who had, without apparent hesitation, given up his own nationality out of economic self-interest, who didn’t know who I was, would as lightly have discarded me if a machine could be found to do my job, and whose idea of maximum magnanimity was to hand out a six-ounce can of beer and a limp sandwich.

These anecdotes dry up later in the book, and Notes From A Small Island loses some of its lustre as it becomes simply a journey through Britain’s hotels, restaurants and train stations. Bryson’s tirade against modern architecture also becomes tiresome, even for a reader who agrees with him entirely, as I do. Although on the subject of agreement, I was interested to see that apparently even in the 1990s there was popular backing for the bizarre idea that upon the Queen’s death, Prince Charles should bow out and pass the throne directly to the younger, more attractive and more popular Prince William. I agree with Bryson:

It seemed to me to miss the point. If you are going to have a system of hereditary privilege, then surely you have to take what comes your way no matter how ponderous the poor fellow may be or how curious his taste in mistresses.

Bryson’s attitude towards Britain can sometimes be overly sentimental. It’s clear that he loves this country, to the point where he sometimes verges upon British exceptionalism. It is utter nonsense to argue that people in other countries don’t know how to queue, or that they don’t laugh or smile as much the British. I sometimes wonder how much of this perceived difference between nations in the English-speaking first world (Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) is due to generational differences – since kids in today’s generation all grew up watching the same American TV and spend plenty of time on the internet speaking to people from all over – and how much of it is due to the fact that people who think there are vast differences between the US and Britain have never been to, say, China or Africa.

Notes From A Small Island is a solid Bryson book. Like many of his other books, it can become repetitive and focus a little too much on the banal experiences of travel, and if his sense of humour is not your cup of tea than you might find him cynical or ill-tempered. But I enjoy him a fair bit – it’s easy, funny reading.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
Armchair travel. Author lived in England almost 20 years. Humor is enjoyable. He could leave out the swearing and sex and it would be even better. It is a glimpse of England, written as a farewell. He travels by foot and public transportation.
LibraryThing member mjmbecky
If you're like I am, it can be awfully fun to read a good travel book that coordinates with somewhere you've visited or would like to visit. Having read Bill Bryson's book In a Sunburned Country and laughed endlessly at his anecdotes, I knew I had to read this travel book about the British Isles.
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I'm jealous that he had the chance to live there for so long and to get a feel for the local context behind how they view themselves. A lot of times, a travel writer can only suppose how the locals view themselves or get inside their heads so that we see their world view. In this case, I really did feel like Bryson was able to explain how Brits view the world and even why. For instance, living in such a small "island" locale, things are only gauged by what's local. What would feel like a little jaunt down to the southern end of my own state, to them feels like a real journey. That just happens to be their frame of reference.

One thing you readily pick up on in Bryson's work is his disdain for sterile locations that have no thought for their beauty. If buildings and lots are built over historically significant locations, and even more horrendously out of concrete, you get that he's not happy. Having visited England, but simply traveled a bit, I 100% understand his thoughts on "civilization" and how we put towns together. The well thought out buildings, cathedrals, hedgerows, and historical landmarks make a place and give it the charm we yearn for. Enough said.

Bryson has exhaustively backed up his information about the cities and towns he visited with some of the history that went along with it. In some cases, I had been where he discussed, so I was much more interested. In others, I had never even heard of them, so I was less interested. And in a final few more, I've wanted to go visit, so I paid a bit of extra attention. In short, there is a lot of information that can take his books from a "fun read" to a bit of a travelogue.

I really do enjoy Bryson's writing style and have grown to trust his knowledge about the places he writes. I appreciate that he digs in and talks about the infrastructure, a bit about the food he ate (only from time to time), and the people he encountered. Even if I haven't been where he is talking about, I feel like I'm tagging along. For this travel buff, that's always a very good thing!
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LibraryThing member 23eris
Bill Bryson has a wonderful sense of humor. His trip trekking around England before he moves away to America showcases the country at its best.

Pages

324

ISBN

0688147259 / 9780688147259
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