Dec 7, 2008

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, an American living in England for nearly twenty years, decides to take one last tour of the UK before moving back to this homeland. He begins in Dover, and over the following weeks he visits London, Dorset, Salisbury, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Liverpool, North Wales, York, Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow, among other less well-known places. And he tells us all about it, recounting hilarious incidents, sharing endearing moments, and comparing the present moment (1994) with the country as it was when he first saw it in the late seventies.

Let me start by saying that Notes from a Small Island is absolutely hilarious. There were several moments that made me laugh out loud, and more often than not when I find a book funny I’m just quietly amused inside my head. It’s only a handful of writers who manage to make me laugh out loud, and Bill Bryson is one of them. The book is also full of great descriptions and pertinent observations and insights.

However, I completely agree with Debi (and let me thank her once again for so kindly passing this book on to me). In fact, if I were feeling lazy I could just send you over there to read her thoughts. The problem is that Bill Bryson complains too much, and after a while he began to get on my nerves. He makes sure he points out the architectural atrocities of every single one of the places he visits. He constantly says that everything was much better in the seventies. He even goes as far as saying something along the lines of “at this rate, the countryside could be gone forever in another generation”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the conservation of both nature and of heritage sites. The thing is, people have been saying they’ll be “gone forever in another generation” for the past two centuries. And I fully acknowledge that the fact they have been saying it is partially responsible for people becoming more aware of conservation issues , and thus them still being around. But the fact that he seems to focus on the negative most of the time did get old after a while.

I actually agree with many of the points he makes. I think that what got on my nerves was the fact that he lacks perspective. He seems convinced that the UK is much worse than any other country when it comes to these matters, that people take heritage for granted because there’s so much of it. Perhaps some of them do, but believe me, it happens elsewhere too. I live in a two thousand year old city that began as a Roman settlement and that has absolutely nothing to show for its past. I live in a city where Roman ruins are bulldozered to make way for parking lots. I know what I’m talking about.

He also said several things that made me go “whaaat?”: that Oxford is ugly, that Manchester has no character, that Princes Street in Edinburgh is “a scar of architectural regretabillities”. Maybe these places changed a lot since 1994. And of course, everything is a matter of opinion. But he asserts his own opinion rather passionately. The book could easily have been retitled The Architectural Flaws of Modern British Cities. And I’ve no doubt there are many of them, but like I said, it's his conviction that Britain is worse than other countries when it comes to this that seems unfair to me. He does say at one point that “the rest of Europe” seems to manage to have harmonious cities somehow, and why can't Britain learn. Only I think this “rest of Europe” he speaks of is more imaginary than real. These problems exist everywhere.

The book is subtitled “An Affectionate Portrait of Britain”, and despite everything I’ve been saying so far, the fact that he really cares about the place really does show. And it’s the reason why he’s so impassioned about the problems he encounters. There are also descriptions of lovely places, and several passages that I found touching. Still, I wish the book had been more balanced.

I hope I don’t sound like I hated Notes from a Small Island, because that wasn’t the case at all. I now fear that this post suffers from the same problem as the book: focusing on the negative to an unfair extent. Despite my occasional annoyance, I enjoyed the book, and I definitely plan on reading Bill Bryson again in the future.

Reviewed at:
Nothing of Importance
What Kate's Reading
Reading Room

(Please let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. It sounds like an interesting book, though I must admit I tend to shy away from most books people tell me are laugh out loud funny. I rarely find them so. No idea why.

    The question of balance is an interesting one, isn't it? Without the passion, which from what you said, seems to be driven by the imbalance, would the book have been as good? One has to wonder.


  2. I've read 2 of Bill Bryson's books and enjoyed both of them and, my Secret Santa gave me another one to read!

  3. I've never read any of Bryson's travel books, but I have read "The Mother Tongue" and "A Small History of Nearly Everything" - both of which I loved. I think Bryson is one of those rare writers who can make anything sound interesting. Reading about the history of paleontology isn't what I consider my usual cup of tea, but with Bryson's writing I not only found it interesting, but hilarious.

    I'm sorry Bryson seemed so negative in this one. I've always had this on my TBR list along with "A Long Walk in the Woods." But since you said it's still great, it'll leave it there. Great review!

  4. How disappointing. I began dating my wife in Edinburgh, so I have little patience with folks who criticize it.

  5. I read I'm a Stranger Here Myself last year and agree with your assessment. He does get a little harpy after awhile. I thought it was funny that you said that he acts like everything was better in the 1970s because I get read his childhood memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and he definitely feels like everything was better in the 1950s too. :)

  6. I loved reading your review, Nymeth! I always sort of wondered if I was being too hard on that book. Because overall, I did enjoy it. Oh crap, see here I go with all those contradictory feelings again. Did you find this book as hard to review as I did?

  7. I'm about half-way through this one - it's on my bedside table, and those are long reads since I tend to fall asleep while reading :) - and so far I think I'd have to agree with your assessment. I'm still enjoying it and will finish it, but he does seem excessively negative.

    I've got to hurry up and finish it now.

  8. Hi Nymeth! Both you and Debi did a wonderful take on this one. I think I've yet to reach the halfway part of the book (if I can find it, it's somewhere here I know) and so far (at least up until the time I left it here somewhere, yay) I seem to be enjoying it but apparently not enough since I seem to have put it down somewhere but I can't seem to locate it now. Oh goodness I'm rambling. In your blog! Hopefully I can find it, start again (all I can remember now is him recalling funny names of locations at the start) and finish it this time :)

    I dearly adored Bryson's Walk in the Woods because of the hike and all in the eh, woods. He also complains a lot there and it was one hilarious read. I don't know if he complains in his book about Australia but it seems a good bet that he does. The way I see it, his complaining is his manner of getting it out there.

    My adoration of him notwithstanding and the fact that I love science, I can't seem to get past the first twenty pages of A Short History of Nearly Everything. I think that it's good but at the handful of times I picked it up to enjoy I couldn't feel myself getting into it. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for it; either him or science at that time. Oh well. Rambling over.

    Really great post. It keeps me in perspective. Maybe, just maybe this is why I never got around to finishing it.

  9. I hadn't heard of Bryson until about a year ago when I was looking into some of his books for an armchair travel challenge, and I always thought they looked really good. I'm still really intrigued, but I can understand the negativity (LOL--even my own negativity gets on my nerves!!). :) Anyway, your review does have me very interested in the book--even if only to mentally chide Bryson while reading!

  10. I haven't read anything by Bill Bryson before. I'm not sure if I would ever pick up his books but I might... Thanks for the review, Nymeth! :)

  11. I don't love Bill Bryson, but he definitely makes me laugh. His short history of nearly everything is worth a read.

  12. CJ, you make a good point. His passion is certainly also responsible for a lot of what makes the book great. And I know what you mean about laugh out loud funny. I've had that experience too. I guess we all have different "funny bones"!

    Bermudaonion: I hope that one's just as enjoyable!

    J.S. Peyton: Those two are actually next on my list. One because I'm a sucker of history of language and anything linguistics related, and the other because science is cool. It's good to hear they're both interesting and hilarious!

    Loren Eaton, that's so cool! I don't have such an important personal history with the city, but I thought it was the most beautiful city I'd ever seen, and I can't imagine its place being stolen in my heart. So yes, the things Bryson said about it felt like stabs! This sounds dramatic, but I'm sure you understand :P

    Tricia: lol, I guess he has a fondness for nostalgia :P

    Debi: It was hard indeed. I was very tempted to just post a link to your review and be done with it :P It's that I didn't want to be unfair, because there were parts of the book I really enjoyed. But at the same time I wanted to rant about all the things that irked me.

    Kate, I really look forward to reading your final thoughts on it.

    Lightheaded: You know I love your "rambles", so say however much you want to! I wonder if I'd have felt differently about his complaining if some of the places (like Edinburgh) weren't so dear to me. But you know, even when he annoyed me he still made me laugh, and that's quite a feat.

    Trish: I actually don't think I'd heard of him until I started blogging. My own negativity can annoy me too, which was why I said what I did at the end of the post :P But I do think this one's worth reading all the same.

    Alice: He does make travel writing extremely interesting!

    Mariel: Like I was telling J.S. Peyton, that's next on my list.

  13. This is one of those books I keep meaning to read, being an American in Britain, must I've always put it off..

  14. One of these days I need to read some of his humour. The only book I have ever read by Bryson was a biography of Shakespear last year (or was is it this year)... Anyway, I think I even have a couple on my TBR pile. One of these days!

  15. Michelle: Hope you enjoy it when you do get to it! It's likely that you'd relate to many things in the book.

    Kailana: I've been saying that for years about many authors myself :P

  16. Really enjoyed this when I read it a few years ago (even though he absolutely slated my home town in it (and he was right on every point!)) I always read the moaning and complaining as affectionate to be honest as well.

    Glad you enjoyed it though.

  17. Bart: I agree that it was affectionate, and I really don't know enough about the places to be able to tell if he was accurate. I wonder if that's why I thought he overdid it...not knowing the UK well, maybe I idealize it. Sort of like I got the impression he idealized the rest of Europe somewhat :P Anyway, I expect my mood helped too. But I really did enjoy it still.

  18. Wasn't this televised? I seem to remember seeing it...

  19. Great, honest review.
    Its good that even though it was a bit annoying, you enjoyed it overall.
    It does seem to me like this would be a hard book to review.

  20. I read this a few years ago, before I moved to York in 2000. The irony about Bill Bryson's complaining about Britain and all its shortcomings is that that is how the middle-class thinks about Britain! My in-laws are always complaining about things in general there, and before we moved back to Canada, we had a good family debate about life there vs life over here (which they have idolized as much much better than anything the UK can offer) and I said, 'you only talk about the negative, you never ever say what is good about this country (England).' That gave them pause, as they had never really looked at it that way. Bill Bryson's book reminds me of that, and the irony is it shows how completely he had become British in his way of looking at Britain! I'll have to reread the book again at some time. I think my re-read pile is almost as large as my TBR pile! I loved this review, Nymeth :-)

  21. Ladytink: I'm not sure...but I can definitely imagine it as a documentary!

    Naida: I did...he was funny even when he was being annoying :P

    Susan: I love what you said about how his depreciative tone is proof of how British he's become, lol. I think we all tend to take our home countries for granted to an extent, to focus on the bad because the good is just what we've become used to.

  22. I've never heard of this book or this author before reading your review. It sounds interesting, though I'm not sure it's my cup of tea.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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