Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

I have to admit, I don’t like traveling. I’m very lucky in that I have plenty of opportunity to travel, what with being French-American and a pilot’s kid, but I always feel a little guilty that I, quite honestly, prefer exploring Georgia to exploring other countries. However, I adore the British. I maniacally TiVo’ed every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus I could during middle school, I love British humor and television, and I even love their weirdly gregarious ducks. While this probably makes me a terrible Frank, I must say this–my mother is the one that introduced Notes from a Small Island to me, since she had it lying around the house since I was a wee lass. I finally rented it from my local library last week and finished it.

In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson takes one last tour of England before moving back to America with his wife and children. He spends seven weeks rambling from town to town, mixing in his own reflections on twenty years in the British Isles with his current travels.

Despite being from Iowa, Bryson has a firmly British sense of humor. He’s very dry and has a knack for deploying profanity where it makes the most comic impact. He cheerfully relates interesting or funny historical anecdotes related to each area he visits, and remarks a great deal on the various endearing traits of the British. The only time the humor missteps is when Bryson inexplicably engages in a very tired routine about the differences of men and women in shopping, which was just boring. I can’t imagine why it’s even in the book, seeing how it has nothing to do with Britain, traveling it, or being American in it.

As is the nature of the travelogue, it’s very episodic–Bryson goes to town, reminisces (if he was ever there), relays a few choice anecdotes, describes his stay humorously, and moves on to the next town. While most of these little episodes are funny, it can feel a little repetitive towards the end. This isn’t to say that each little episode isn’t any good–they are, especially a particularly wonderful moment where Bryson stumbles across Roman ruins in the countryside. (Even this sweet story has a punchline, which I quite enjoyed.) I think this is the sort of book that would do well as an audiobook in the car–you don’t need to recall what came before to enjoy each little episode.

I was quite surprised to learn that Bryson often just walked from town to town and relied on public transportation (although he does resort to a car at one point). It’s quite refreshing to see Bryson make a sudden change of plans and visit someplace else entirely. It was also interesting to see how he travels alone, something I would probably never dare to do, but Notes from a Small Island was written in 1998, with all the Princess Di jokes to prove it. I wouldn’t go so far to say that the book is dated, but it definitely shows its age a little.

Nostalgia plays a large part in Notes from a Small Island, especially towards the end. While Bryson’s stories about England in the 1960s and 1970s are quite fun (his story about the asylum is not to be missed), his long sighs about how modern England doesn’t respect its heritage and how everything is changing can get tedious. My sympathy vanished when Bryson complained that a particular view was ruined by the addition of telephone wires, as if the British don’t need proper telephone service like everyone else. Bryson neatly balances such nostalgia with humor for most of the book, but like a lot of things in Notes from a Small Island, that balance gets very shaky as the book winds down.

Bottom line: While Bryson is full of funny stories and anecdotes relating to Britain, Notes from a Small Island is a little too episodic for me, starts to unravel towards the end, and while I wouldn’t call it dated, it definitely smacks of ’90s Britain in a very particular way. If you’re interested, full steam ahead–if not, this isn’t the book to make you fall in love with travelogues.

I rented this book from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Notes from a Small Island

  1. I think I would really enjoy travel literature; in part because I would love to travel but really have neither the time nor the money to do so. 🙂 Bryson, Thereoux, they sound like authors I would enjoy too! And yet, the idea of reading them seems intent on slipping my mind if I am not looking directly at a copy of a travel book. 😉 Thanks for the reminder that I need to read some of this genre.

  2. I enjoyed parts of this book A LOT, but I agree that it got repetitive after a while. I think I’d probably have enjoyed it more if I’d read one chapter at a time over a period of a few weeks. But I love it when he’s talking about London cab drivers – gets them absolutely completely right.

  3. I love to travel and frequently travel by myself. Along with that, I love reading travel memoirs and Bryson’s are some of my favorites. I read this one while living in London and so I think it hit home more than it would have if I’d read it back in the states. Whether you like to travel or not, I would recommend his books, because he’s just hilarious.

  4. Bill Bryson, you are just the funniest guy. Tell me, how can an American have an English sense of humour? I was born and grew up in England, I have lived in Norway since 1963. Luckily the Norwegian people too have the same humour as us “small island” people, otherwise I would get so homesick, but reading your “Notes from a small Island” really brought back memories I thought were gone forever. How do you do it? I laugh out loud when Im reading your books; I don’t know how many you have written, but I got through quite a lot of them, and I was lucky to get hold of 5 books at the jumble sale this last weekend.
    Keep up the good work Bryson, you are so entrtaining.
    Thank you for making me laugh.

  5. Pingback: Bill Bryson – Notes from a Small Island « Fyrefly's Book Blog

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