Review: ‘Notes From A Small Island’



Notes From A Small Island

By Bill Bryson

  • Date Finished: Aug. 14, 2014
  • Genre: Travel, Memoir
  • Year: 1995
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Summer 2014
  • Grade: B
  • Thoughts upon reading:

Now you know, that I know, that you know…that I’m a fan of Bill Bryson. Ever since I read A Short History of Nearly Everything last year, I’ve been hooked. I wasn’t even finished with A Walk in the Woods when I started recommending it to everyone I knew, even if they didn’t like hiking, or American history, or reading.

All that being said, I have to say I was mildly disappointed in Notes From A Small Island, though I only say “mildly” because I don’t want to say the entire reading experience was a loss. I think, perhaps, that my expectations were a bit too high; though given my experience with Mr. Bryson, can you blame me?

In Notes From A Small Island, Bryson takes a final tour of the adopted country he called home for 20 years, Great Britain. In college, Bryson hitchhiked his way through Europe, ending up in England. While working at an asylum (he’s an eclectic guy, that Bill Bryson), he met the woman who would later become his wife. After finishing his degree in the States, he moved back to England where he got married, raised a family, and worked as a journalist and writer. In the mid-90’s, his family moved to the U.S., where he was inspired to write such awesome books like A Walk in the Woods. But before the move is final, Bryson takes one last tour of Great Britain to rediscover what he loves about his adopted country.

Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, Notes From A Small Island was utterly hilarious. I seriously can’t get over how funny, and good, a writer Bill Bryson is. It doesn’t hurt that he’s totally and utterly irrelevant, brutally honest, and bloody brilliant, which make (I think I’ve said this before) his books a joy to read.

The thing is, I think I was expecting too much from Notes From A Small Island. I was expecting more commentary on Great Britain as a country, and what makes the English English. I was expecting a little bit of social commentary, a little bit more history, and a little bit more on the connection between the English and Americans, including what they think about us. This book had that…but just not enough, for my taste.

Instead, this book is largely a travelogue of the trip Bryson took throughout Great Britain, which – in retrospect – I shouldn’t be all too surprised about since the title makes this fact very clear. However, where I thought I’d find more insightful commentary on the British way of life, I found a lot of complaining about ugly buildings and rants about poor urban planning. Seriously, no small English town can catch a break from Bryson. Granted, he wrote this in the mid-90’s, so who knows what the world looked like 20 years ago (strip malls and high-waisted sweatpants EVERYWHERE!). But again and again, it’s architecture this, and planning that. There’s a lot of description of what British chain stores can be found in every small town from London to Edinburgh, but as an American reading in 2014 (and who has never been to Great Britain), that means a whole lot of nothing to me. Sure, it’s funny, and there are nuggets of insight here and there. But it just wasn’t what I was looking for, and in the end, it didn’t offer up the kind of noteworthy travelogue I could recommend to all my friends.

I will say this, though: reading this book made me strangely glad to be an American. I know this is going to make me sound terrible and small-minded and unworldly, but hear me out. I’ve always had the travel itch, even if I haven’t been able to act on it much. I’ve only traveled out of the country a small handful of times (and that’s if you’re counting Canada), though it’s no secret I’m a Francophile, and for a very long time, I’ve harbored the fantasy that if I was ever single, not tied down, and in possession of a large sum of money, I would be stupidly spontaneous and move to London, where I would live in a flat and have adventures like Bridget Jones. Seriously, this is what I’ve thought (don’t laugh). Anyway, that is all utterly ridiculous and not going to happen, but that’s OK, because Bill Bryson has revealed how seriously weird Great Britain is. Sure it all seems so fancy and romantic, what with Jane Austen movies and Colin Firth, but growing up there would be a strange experience, what with their weird ways and dietary preferences.

In all seriousness, though, one of the points I found most fascinating in this book is how Bill Bryson states that had things happened differently, the British would have been a great culture for the whole communism experiment. That’s because, according to Bryson, no other people are so easily content with the mediocre, and are able to make the best out of ANYTHING. You tell an English person to stand in a long queue, in an annoying drizzle, without their jacket, and they’ll be like, “Oh, of course. I’m sorry I didn’t step up sooner.” The geography of the country doesn’t make this any easier; if the British wish to spend a vacation boating on a lake, they have only a handful of large lakes to choose from because do you KNOW how small this country is? For the British, manners and protocol are important, which is why it’s so easy for them to make fun of Americans as uncivilized. Being made fun of as a loud, rude Yank is annoying, and yet then you realize: if I want to go on a lake vacation, I can choose from about 10,000 lakes in 50 different states because oh yeah, the U.S. is HUGE. And if you tell us to stand in a line in a rainstorm, yeah well f*** you too. There’s definitely a sense of freedom in knowing you come from a country where boundaries are just wider. It makes you realize how lucky you are.

Still, visiting Great Britain is still one those bucket list trips for me, and I hope-hope-hope I can make it in the next 10 years. Because yeah, it IS still the country of Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Colin Firth. When I do go, though, I’ll have to bring another travelogue with me. Bryson is a delight, as always, but Notes From A Small Island is just a bit too outdated, and a bit useless for any travels of mine. But that’s OK, Bill. There’s always your next book.

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