Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island

"Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain-which is to say, all of it."After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson - bestselling author of The Mother Tongue and Made in America-decided to return to the United States. ("I had recently read," Bryson writes, "that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abd...

Title:Notes from a Small Island
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Edition Language:English

Notes from a Small Island Reviews

  • Alissa

    Bill Bryson likes hedgerows, yelling at people, the English language, complaining, pretending to be a hiker, the fifth Duke of Portland, W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck, and

    . He tries too hard to be clever, and although you're being introduced to some interesting mental pictures ("a mid-face snack dispenser" for instance), and it's positively obvious how much he loves the English language and the art of writing, the lengths to which he goes can be tiring. The long-winded, irritating tangents he go

    Bill Bryson likes hedgerows, yelling at people, the English language, complaining, pretending to be a hiker, the fifth Duke of Portland, W.J.C. Scott-Bentinck, and

    . He tries too hard to be clever, and although you're being introduced to some interesting mental pictures ("a mid-face snack dispenser" for instance), and it's positively obvious how much he loves the English language and the art of writing, the lengths to which he goes can be tiring. The long-winded, irritating tangents he goes on add to this eye-clawing frustration. He seems to be bipolar, or maybe hypoglycemic, for his like or dislike of a certain village or city appears to be related to how much he's eaten or how much sleep he's had. (And please answer, who goes to see the best of England in the

    ?) He is rude to a McDonald's cashier and the owner of a guest house, which I simply cannot tolerate. I have a soft spot for the Scots, and the way Bryson pokes fun at the gentlemen in a local pub is unfathomable. On top of everything else, there is very little mention of my home for 6 months, Norwich, and the closest he seems to get is a switch at Newmarket. Still, I didn't completely hate this book, and it had me laughing out loud at some points because he hit it

    . Interesting about the hedgerows and the former Duke of Portland, too. Mustn't grumble, or so they say.

  • Lisa Vegan

    It took me forever to read this because I was constantly picking it up and putting it down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it’s one of those books where it works to read it in this way, and I read so many other books during the times I took breaks from reading this book.

    Sometimes I just don’t like Bill Bryson as a man. There’s a smattering of things he writes that are cruel, crass, and otherwise makes him unappealing to me, and he sure drinks a lot of beer, but the nasty material

    It took me forever to read this because I was constantly picking it up and putting it down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because it’s one of those books where it works to read it in this way, and I read so many other books during the times I took breaks from reading this book.

    Sometimes I just don’t like Bill Bryson as a man. There’s a smattering of things he writes that are cruel, crass, and otherwise makes him unappealing to me, and he sure drinks a lot of beer, but the nasty material is a tiny minority of the book’s content.

    He’s basically a likeable and interesting guy who is an explorer, much of it done via walking, and he has a refreshing sense of what constitutes adventure.

    He’s a skilled writer. He’s very, very funny; I laughed out loud and chuckled many times.

    I’ve always wanted to go to Britain so for me this was a bit of armchair traveling. Unfortunately, much of this book made me wish I’d visited the place (and most other places) at least a few decades ago. Bryson makes clear the homogenization that’s taken place at various British locales, and this book was written 15 years ago so who knows what he’d say now. I’d still love to go but I’d skip some of his destinations. He also writes much about the history of his destinations and I found most of the information fascinating.

    One thing that tickled my funny bone is that when he was in one small English town, he saw the old “This is Cinerama” movie, a movie I remember from my childhood, and brought me right back to the United States of America. I hadn’t realized the movie was already old the first time that I saw it, but I do remember loving that film and other Cinerama movies.

    There’s a glossary of English (vs. American English) words in the back of the book. Given that I’m a bit of an Anglophile, I already knew the definition of most of the words, but having it in the book was a fun touch.

  • Cecily

    After 20 years in England, Bill Bryson decided to tour Britain in 1995 by public transport over ~6 weeks and write a book about it.

    HUMOUR

    There are snippets of great humour and insight (“a young man with more on his mind than in it”; “carpet with the sort of pattern you get when you rub your eyes too hard”; in Liverpool, “They were having a festival of litter... citizens had taken time off from their busy schedules to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier bags to the otherwise blan

    After 20 years in England, Bill Bryson decided to tour Britain in 1995 by public transport over ~6 weeks and write a book about it.

    HUMOUR

    There are snippets of great humour and insight (“a young man with more on his mind than in it”; “carpet with the sort of pattern you get when you rub your eyes too hard”; in Liverpool, “They were having a festival of litter... citizens had taken time off from their busy schedules to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes and carrier bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape”, and an amusing anecdote of him asking for directions having forgotten he was wearing pants on his head). But as the book progresses, they become fewer as the amount of repetitious moaning increases. For a self-confessed Anglophile, he often seems to dislike the place, though the weather gets off surprisingly lightly, especially given that he made the trip in late autumn.

    BRYSON HERUMPHING

    The lack of trains in remote areas is a particular bugbear, but what I don't understand is his outraged surprise - he'd lived in and travelled around the country for 20 years! He argues that they shouldn’t have to be profitable because traffic lights, drains and parks don’t. And at a practical level, he often changes his mind about where he's going once he's on the station platform or even on the train itself (i.e. after he should have bought a ticket), yet he never mentions encountering any problems with ticket collectors etc.

    Modern architecture and urban planning are his other pet hates. He bemoans the homogeneity of high streets full of chains (rather than family shops), yet is annoyed at the lack of 24 hour opening and gives Marks and Spencer so many favourable mentions, I wondered if they sponsored him in some way.

    ME HERUMPHING

    Readers are treated to endless descriptions of hotels and stations, but without enough comment about actual people (with a few notable exceptions: Mrs Smegma, a lunatic in Weston, and an ancient train buff), which makes it increasingly dull. Mind you, the way he chose his wife is described in very detached terms, so maybe he’s just not really a people person. On the other hand, he occasionally throws in gratuitous expletives, which don’t fit the general style of the book.

    However, the worst offence is the lack of index or map – both of which should be essential in any travel book (an index for any non fiction book). Overseas readers might also appreciate a glossary, as it's clearly written for an audience who, if not English, are at least familiar with the country.

    THE GOOD BITS

    But there are plus sides, and Bryson is at his best when he goes off at a tangent and riffs on some unexpected topic. He explains why the British would have coped well under Communism (good at queuing, tolerant of dictatorships (cf Mrs Thatcher) and boring food). He throws in potted history about the founder of Sainsbury and his mansion (but doesn’t bother to find out why it was left to rot) and the fact that the bicycle pedal was invented in Scotland. He points out that Manchester has no motif (that’s why I find it so forgettable!), the US has no equivalent of “taking the piss” and that while US soaps are about glamorous people who can’t act, British ones are the opposite. Rather than extolling the innovation of the tube map, he suggest tricks to play on tourists e.g. by getting the tube from Bank to Mansion House (1 change, 6 stops) to end up 200 yards from where they started. Best of all, he delights in words: the odd and romantic place names, the differences in usage between the US and Britain and the florid language of menus. He ponders replying in kind and requesting “a lustre of water freshly drawn from the house tap and presented au nature in a cylinder of glass”!

    CURATE

    Overall, it’s like the famous curate’s egg: “parts of it are excellent”. I think there's a good book struggling to get out, but it needed a decent editor to make that happen.

  • Jan-Maat

    Easily my favourite Bryson book and one I happily recommend as a light hearted introduction to Britain.

    Bryson is the perfect coffee and a doughnut writer. You can read him while concentrating on your coffee and it will pass your time pleasantly, maybe you won't gain anything from this exercise, no wisdom, no insight, no sudden new understanding but he won't cost you anything either

    Easily my favourite Bryson book and one I happily recommend as a light hearted introduction to Britain.

    Bryson is the perfect coffee and a doughnut writer. You can read him while concentrating on your coffee and it will pass your time pleasantly, maybe you won't gain anything from this exercise, no wisdom, no insight, no sudden new understanding but he won't cost you anything either

  • Marti

    Ambling know-it-all wanders around the UK, complaining about architecture, getting drunk, finding delight in little, and generally having a hard time deciding where to eat (always Indian or Chinese in the end).

    It paints a pretty depressing picture of the UK, when I think his intention was the opposite. Plus, I really liked his book about traveling through continental Europe, so I don’t know what happened here. Also thought the scene where he tells us how fat people eat was insulting, to, well,

    Ambling know-it-all wanders around the UK, complaining about architecture, getting drunk, finding delight in little, and generally having a hard time deciding where to eat (always Indian or Chinese in the end).

    It paints a pretty depressing picture of the UK, when I think his intention was the opposite. Plus, I really liked his book about traveling through continental Europe, so I don’t know what happened here. Also thought the scene where he tells us how fat people eat was insulting, to, well, fat people. He also takes a few cracks at the elderly because he says they like to complain—but pot, kettle, black.

    He really comes across as a curmudgeon in this one, but I kept reading because at least I was learning a little bit about Britain. (A very little bit.) I wanted to smack him after he refuses to pay 14.50 for a hotel breakfast, then can’t find anywhere in town to eat, then starving, staggers into a McDonald’s and proceeds to go off on a poor minimum-wage employee when he asks if he’d like to add an apple turnover to his order. It's McDonald's, Bill. That's what they do.

  • Diane

    This book combines several of my favorite things: travelogues, England, and the charm of Bill Bryson.

    It is the book version of comfort food.

    So you can understand why I instinctively reached for this audiobook on the the first day of my new job. I wanted something comforting. And humorous. And British.

    I was instantly gratified. Bryson begins his book about touring England by describing how intensely Brits will argue about distance and driving routes:

    "If you mention in the pub that you intend to d

    This book combines several of my favorite things: travelogues, England, and the charm of Bill Bryson.

    It is the book version of comfort food.

    So you can understand why I instinctively reached for this audiobook on the the first day of my new job. I wanted something comforting. And humorous. And British.

    I was instantly gratified. Bryson begins his book about touring England by describing how intensely Brits will argue about distance and driving routes:

    "If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, 'Well, now,

    a bit of a tall order,' and then they'll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it's better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester, or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swiveling your head in quiet wonderment ... Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it's just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the North Circular in London, and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Monday, except bank holidays when you shouldn't go anywhere at all."

    The whole book was immensely enjoyable. The plan was for Bryson to take a last tour of England before he and his family moved to America for a few years. (Bryson is from the States, but his wife is British.) He was going to travel mostly by public transportation, because his wife wouldn't let him have the car. (HA!) There did not seem to be a logic to his journey -- instead he went hither and thither as he desired, sometimes jumping on a bus or train if it happened to arrive while he was standing there. A few times he broke down and rented a car or took a cab, but he always gave a good reason.

    As someone who has not visited England in more than 15 years* (and what a sad realization it was to do the math), I could only relate to a few stops on his journey. But I still loved his meanderings and his musings. And I will continue to find more Bill Bryson audiobooks because they are just so delightful.

    *This was a delightful re-read! I had the good fortune to visit England earlier this summer — so it's no longer been 15 years since I've been there — and decided to listen to Bryson's audiobook again. It was great to have a better understanding of where he visited, and to enjoy his amusing stories. When I have some time I'll add more to the Favorite Quotes section, because there are lots of fun ones. Highly recommended to fans of travelogues and/or England.

    First Read: August 2014

    Second Read: July 2016

    "I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is, if you ask me, far more beautiful and interesting than Paris and more lively than anywhere but New York -- and even New York can't touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world."

    "I spent two days driving through the Cotswolds and didn't like it at all -- not because the Cotswolds were unlovely but because the car was. You are so sealed off from the world in a moving vehicle, and the pace is all wrong. I had grown used to moving about at walking speed or at least British Rail speed, which is often of course much the same thing."

    "I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It's a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto, 'Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler and with some rain.' There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy with some warm/cool spells. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day -- for all I know, it may -- and scarcely ever be wrong."

  • ·Karen·

    Mr Bryson has an entertaining line of patter, a nice, wry humour and he works very very hard to endear himself with the reader. Look, I'm a regular guy from Iowa who sometimes gets really narked at owners of undisciplined dogs and thinks hedgerows are A Good Thing and cars aren't. But that doesn't quite compensate for the fact that this is basically a catalogue of towns, hotel rooms and meals in restaurants - an amusing catalogue, but a catalogue all the same. Where BB gets right up my nose is w

    Mr Bryson has an entertaining line of patter, a nice, wry humour and he works very very hard to endear himself with the reader. Look, I'm a regular guy from Iowa who sometimes gets really narked at owners of undisciplined dogs and thinks hedgerows are A Good Thing and cars aren't. But that doesn't quite compensate for the fact that this is basically a catalogue of towns, hotel rooms and meals in restaurants - an amusing catalogue, but a catalogue all the same. Where BB gets right up my nose is with his quaint idea that Britain should have remained in a seventies time warp, preserving all those quirky little British things like red pillar boxes and old-fashioned red telephone boxes merely, it would seem, because they appeal to regular guys from Iowa. Has it escaped his notice that even British people now have mobiles, and no longer need to use smelly phone booths and, oh wonder, now write e-mails or post updates on social networks, which renders pillar boxes surplus to requirements, no matter what colour they are? And I got heartily sick of his rants about modern town architecture, he sounds like Prince Charles with a less annoying accent. I'm sure that Britain is not always a model of sensitive town planning, but what does he expect? Filling station forecourts with mock-Georgian carriage gates? Boots the chemist with all its products in brass-handled mahogany drawers? Ask those Thurso ladies he met taking the six am train for the four hour trip to Inverness to buy knickers and get their hair done. I bet they'd rather have a bland, glass fronted Marks and Spencer in Thurso, even if it did spoil the appearance of their lovely little self-sufficient community.

  • Paul

    I wasn't sure how much I'd get out of reading a book about my home country written by an American... but it turned out to be a joy. I hadn't realised, until I read the book, that Bryson had lived in the UK for many years. It gives him a rather unusual perspective on the place and makes for interesting reading.

    It also helps that I enjoyed his sense of humour. It's a little morbid at times; he makes a joke about the Zeebrugge ferry disaster at one point that a lot of people may find to be in bad t

    I wasn't sure how much I'd get out of reading a book about my home country written by an American... but it turned out to be a joy. I hadn't realised, until I read the book, that Bryson had lived in the UK for many years. It gives him a rather unusual perspective on the place and makes for interesting reading.

    It also helps that I enjoyed his sense of humour. It's a little morbid at times; he makes a joke about the Zeebrugge ferry disaster at one point that a lot of people may find to be in bad taste; but I'm not easily offended, so it didn't worry me too much. I laughed quite a bit while reading this book and, as I read about half of it out walking myself, that lifted my spirits and helped me stay the course. (I'm desperately trying to shift some of this excess weight I've been carrying around for years, so I'm trying to do a 90 minute walk every day. It seems to be working; I've lost about 28 lbs so far...)

    On occasion, he portrays himself in a less than sympathetic light, being downright rude to various customer service folks across the country who were only doing their jobs as the company they're working for asks them to do it. Here's a tip for folks out there: if you have received bad service from a customer service employee, please feel free to complain. If you have a problem with a company policy that the employee has absolutely no control over, ask to speak to their manager; don't be a complete fucking arsehole to the poor bloke/lass who is only doing their job. If you do that, it's YOU being a shitty human being, not them.

    To Bryson's credit, he usually realises he's being a dickhead on these occasions; usually when it's too late to do anything about it.

    Anyway, it was a real pleasure to see the UK through Bryson's eyes for a while. It almost had me feeling patriotic for a second... but then I slapped myself in the face and started thinking like an intelligent human being again. I'll definitely be reading more of Bryson's work in the future.

  • Algernon

    Newsflash: I have a new entry into my Top Ten Authors (past and present) that I would like to invite to a night out at the pub for a session of heavy drinking and tall tales.

    Bill Bryson, with his sly humour and irreverent atitude towards tourism, is a strong contender for the top position right after my first experience of travelling in his company through the twisted back lanes of historical hamlets of his cherished island. Being both a personal journal and a travel guide, his Notes have been

    Newsflash: I have a new entry into my Top Ten Authors (past and present) that I would like to invite to a night out at the pub for a session of heavy drinking and tall tales.

    Bill Bryson, with his sly humour and irreverent atitude towards tourism, is a strong contender for the top position right after my first experience of travelling in his company through the twisted back lanes of historical hamlets of his cherished island. Being both a personal journal and a travel guide, his Notes have been voted as the book that best represent Britain to the world. I believe the praise is well deserved.

    The secret of Bill Bryson success is easy to discern from the pages of this journal: He fell in love with the island from the first moment he landed in Dover in 1973, and his enthusiasm is as fresh and as catching two decades later as he prepares for a farewell trip before returning to America.

    Sometimes it takes a long trip away from home or the perspective of a stranger to make you realize the beauty of the land and of the people around you, and Bill Bryson is for me the best kind of guide possible. He shares my love for walking, an impulsive nature that can change routes on the spur of a moment, and equal interest in the highbrow amusements of historical monuments or art galleries and the popular amusement parks and drinking pubs, for the statistical trivia and for the scandalous bit of gossip about the local worthies.

    Time and time again the words that describe the places, the people, the cuisine and the culture of Britain turn into a song of joy at the chance to witness the marvels of his adopted country. Not even the constant bad weather (roughly about two thirds of his out of season journey by my count) can keep his buoyant mood down for more than one evening. Inevitably, the next stop on the railway line or the next hill to be climbed will bring back the cheerful hiker who likes to remind the reader to count his blessings and be happy to be alive, to be healthy and to live in a peaceful period of history that makes lonely travelling an attractive proposition.

    For seven weeks in 1994, Bill Bryson will try to rediscover Britain from the southern Downs to the last desolate northern moors, travelling alone on foot or by public transport, a decision that I will let him explain with his usual mix of militancy and self-deprecating humour:

    With great enthusiasm comes also great indignation at the carelessness and disrespect for the heritage of Britain, as witnessesd in the ugliness of modern cement office blocks, proliferation of cars and highways, loss of diversity and globalization, mass tourism and the trivialization of history. In a way, Notes from a Small Island is also a snapshot of a world in danger of being swallowed up and zombified into a characterless, generic shopping mall.

    and,

    and,

    Speaking of shopping malls, did you ever go shopping with you better half? If so, you will know what the author is talking about:

    I have a small suspicion that Mr. Bryson had more on his mind than the perils of shopping with his wife when he decided to travel alone through the island. How else can one explain the detailed descriptions of going every night to the pub and sampling the best the Island has to offer in terms of draughts and dark ales and strong spirits? After all, a serious tourist guide must study and include details about the nightlife attractions of the places he visits . Case in point: on his very first day in Britain in 1973, our young author decided to go watch an R-rated movie called "Suburban Wife Swap" in order to improve his language skills and his knowledge of local customs. Which is another reason to trust his judgement on worthy travel spots :-)

    I thought about mentioning some of the places described in the Notes, and what makes them memorable, but there are too many tempting propositions and Bill Bryson does a much better job than me in selling their charms to the readership. I confess I have never visited England, and if anybody asks me what is my favorite holiday destination I will still answer without hesitation : Paris! Even after 15+ visits, it is still my first choice for a visit. But Bill Bryson's small island is making a compelling case for a revision of my priorities. If I were hard pressed to choose only one of the hundreds of interesting places mentioned in the guide, I think I would settle for Liverpool. It might not be obvious why, at first or second glance, what Liverpool offers more than the Lake District or the Cotswolds, but I grew up with the tales of Jules Verne and Joseph Conrad, and more recently Douglass Reeman and Patrick O'Brian, and I always dreamed that one day I will embark for a voyage around the world's blue lanes:

    The rest of my review is a series of footnotes and little details that reinforce the good impression and the fun I had on my travels with this incredible guide. Do you know what the most important quality of a tourist is? Curiosity:

    Do you know how to prepare for your trip? Read as much as you can about the places you are going to see (and write about):

    what sort of equipment you need for your trip? The fun begins well in advance of the actual departure:

    (I wonder what his wife thought about men and their shopping habits now?)

    Are you worried the locals and the other tourists will laugh at you? It's better to be ready for anything than wet and cold, so relax, and enjoy the view:

    Is it worth your time and effort?

    Why would you go to a place on the map that everybody seems to run away from?

    When is the journey ended? when you have seen everything the world has to show you. In other words, never:

    The good news is that Bill Bryson has already written a sequel

    and that I have already ordered two more of his other books - the one on hiking through the Appallachians, and the one on popular science. I must thank all my friends here on Goodreads who recommended this author to me. Little Dribbling, here I come:

    >><<>><<>><<

    ... about that Top Ten Fantasy Drinking Buddies, my list right now looks like this:

    1. Sir Terry Pratchett

    2. Spider G Robinson

    3. Bill Bryson

    4. Connie Willis

    5. Bohumil Hrabal

    6. Douglas Adams

    7. Carl Hiaasen

    8. Tom Robbins

    9. Thomas Pynchon

    10. James Crumley

    It's a work in progress.

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  • Darwin8u

    - Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

    It is really hard not to like Bill Bryson's travel books. Actually, it is hard not to like his dictionaries, travelogues, or explorations of: the Universe, the home, Shakespeare, etc. He is, essentially, our Falstaff. He stumbles from bus to train, from pub to pub, from city to city exploring Britain on

    - Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

    It is really hard not to like Bill Bryson's travel books. Actually, it is hard not to like his dictionaries, travelogues, or explorations of: the Universe, the home, Shakespeare, etc. He is, essentially, our Falstaff. He stumbles from bus to train, from pub to pub, from city to city exploring Britain one last time before he and his family leaves. Bryson's insights and digressions are always amusing. I believe this book sits in time (and in form almost) next to one of his other great travel books

    . They share a similar Brysonesque tone and lightness. Again, I would bring back my Falstaff comparisons. Bryson uses humor, self-mockery, and a slight sneer to convey information and truth. One of the "truths" that Bryson pushed heavily in this constructed memoir (there has to be a better term for writing about an event that is designed to be written about). He is pissed that the Brits don't take better care of their heritage. They spend little money on their parks, seem to let their beautiful architecture get torn down, and seem apathetic to hedge rows. Bryson would argue that the Brits are almost blind to their own beauty. They are too close. Sometimes it takes a stranger (and a fool) to whisper the truths you KNOW are true, but are just to close to see.


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