Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

After two decades in Britian, Bill Bryson decided it was time to return to the U.S. This was partly because he wanted his wife and children to experience life in his homeland, and partly because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another. “It was clear that my people needed me,” he says.

Before leaving, though, Bryson resolved to take a grand farewell tour of the island that had so long been his home – the goal being to take stock of the place and figure out what it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Shakespeare, cricket, Windsor Great Park, double-decker buses, and village names like Farleigh Wallop.

Want to know what he found?

Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – old churches, country lanes, people saying ‘Mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but,’ people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, tea and crumpets, summer showers and foggy winter evenings – every bit of it. (p. 316)

If you’re worried I just spoiled everything for you, don’t be. The joy of reading this book is in the journey itself, whether you know the destination or not. In Notes, we have an example of travel writing at its finest and funniest, and any reader looking for a jolly yet informative portrait of Britain should buy a copy at once. It’s the next best thing to packing a suitcase and going there yourself.

That recommendation does come with a caveat, however, as Bryson’s humor sometimes veers into the profane. A handful of tasteless jokes are cracked, and strong language is used. Having said that, I think most readers will still find the ride is an enjoyable one, despite the bumps.

If you’re avoiding this book because you expect it to be a dull travel guide, have no fear. This book is no travel guide, and it isn’t intended to be. Mere agglomeration of facts is not Bryson’s style. He is first and foremost a storyteller, and though facts and details are present, they are not an end unto themselves. Notes is an educational read, no doubt, but it’s a dashed entertaining one, too.

What I most enjoyed was watching Bryson find a grin in the strangest of places. Whether he’s recounting a conversation he had with one of the “natives,” or making an utterly random observation about this or that landmark, the guy seldom fails at being funny.

I returned to the car and spent some time experimenting with the controls and thinking how much I hated these things. Some people are made for cars and some people aren’t. It’s as simple as that. I hate driving cars and I hate thinking about cars and I hate talking about cars. I especially hate it when you get a new car and go into the pub, because someone will always start quizzing you about it, which I dread because I don’t even understand the questions.

“See you’ve got a new car,” they’ll say. “How’s it drive?”

I’m lost already. “Well, like a car. Why, have you never been in one?”

And then they start peppering you with questions. “What sort of mileage you get? How many liters is the engine? What’s the torque? Got twin overhead cams or double-barreled alternator cum carburetor with a full pike and a double-twist dismount?” I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to know all this about a machine. You don’t take that kind of interest in anything else. I’ve been waiting years for somebody in a pub to tell me he’s got a new refrigerator so I can say, “Oh, really? Hoe many gallons of freon does that baby hold? What’s its BTU rating? How’s it cool?” (pp. 140-141)

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Notes from a Small Island”

  1. I really enjoy Bryson. I have a few more of his books I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to yet– how do the piles just keep growing? Thanks for reviewing this!

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