Notes from a Small Island

ISBN: 0380727501
ISBN 13: 9780380727506
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

"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-bestsellingauthor of The Mother Tongue and Made in America-decided to returnto the United States. ("I had recently read," Bryson writes, "that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another,so it was clear that my people needed me.") But before departing, he set out ona grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.

Reader's Thoughts

Ben Babcock

Since I moved to England this fall, I haven’t done too much travelling around the country. I’ve been to London a couple of times, neither of which I did much that could be described as a touristy; the same applies to my trips to Cambridge. I went up to Scotland during the half-term and had a good time there, but I’m looking forward to visiting a few other places around the UK. Until I do, travel writing like Notes from a Small Island will have to serve to whet my appetite.Bill Bryson is a brilliant writer. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favourite books. Bryson has a deft touch to description that makes him an apt writer of non-fiction; he manages to make something that could be dull and make it come alive through anecdotes and humour. I knew he had done some travel writing, a genre that’s been on my mind while teaching AS Literature. So I picked this up during a trip to Waterstones and settled into what I hoped would be a very unique perspective on Great Britain. Bryson didn’t grow up here but has lived here for decades. Preparing to move back to the United States with his family, he tours the island one last time. The result is certainly unique, but not in the way I wanted.The prologue chapter is every bit as brilliant and entertaining as I had hoped it would be. Bryson relates his first days in England, in 1973. He describes butting heads with the formidable Mrs Smegma, the proprietor of a boarding house and perpetually disapproving of whatever Bryson does. He reminisces about his youthful awe over the differences between Britain and the United States, and it’s a delightful prelude to the beginning of his tour of the country twenty years later.I’d be exaggerating if I said that the book goes drastically downhill after that strong start, but it would not be wild hyperbole. Notes from a Small Island suffers from two chief defects. Firstly, as I noted above, Bryson is a brilliant writer—and, unfortunately, he knows this. Secondly, it turns out that his reactions to various places in Britain are very similar and often involve a lot of unfavourable comparisons to how things used to be.Bryson’s wit often seems to get the better of him here. Of course, there are plenty of moments when that humour works well and livens up what might otherwise be a mundane description of his travels through Brighton or Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it often seems like his humour is there to distract us from the fact that he isn’t actually talking about the particular place in question. There are segues into sexist ruminations on the differences between men and women (and he himself labels at least one such episode as sexist, as if that somehow excuses it). At least twice during visits to Chinese restaurants he makes comments that are, if not racist, then culturally insensitive. Such moments were enough to make me feel uncomfortable, particularly because I had so wanted to find this book funny. And throughout the book, he manages to portray himself as a short-tempered, intolerant, rude person who would probably make a terrible travelling companion. To be fair, he seems to be aware of these shortcomings and occasionally even apologizes for them. But he also seems to labour under the delusion that this makes him even more interesting rather than less.The second defect concerns how Bryson describes the way the places he visits have changed over the decades. In almost every case, he manages to point out how development and change has ruined a city. He laments the arrival of indoor shopping malls and the slow destruction of Britain’s hedges. He complains about the motorways, about the rail system, about the distribution and diversity of restaurants. It wouldn’t be so bad if each successive chapter weren’t just more of the same. It’s as if he set out not just to tour Britain but to find as much fault with it as possible in order to justify his relocation to the United States. For someone who claims to love the country—and he does make several keen observations in favour of Britain and its people—he spends a lot of time sounding like someone who doesn’t want kids on his lawn.It’s not all bad news. There is charm to be had in Notes from a Small Island. Bryson shares in common with certain humour writers that talent to transform what are assuredly mild incidents in their lives into wild, slightly absurd anecdotes that nevertheless have the ring of truth. These otherwise excellent moments are spoiled by how repetitive Bryson manages to make the book feel. After the first few chapters, the novelty has worn off. As I approached the end of the book, I was paying very little attention to what he was actually saying, because it felt like more of the same.Notes from a Small Island doesn’t replicate the sense of wonder and enjoyment I derived from A Short History of Nearly Everything. It doesn’t quite give me a sense of the country in which I’m living either. Instead, it’s more like a catalogue of Bill Bryson’s unfavourable experiences across Great Britain. It’s occasionally funny and occasionally charming but not the encomium of travelling through Britain that I want or need.


This is Bryson’s swan song to his adopted home of England, where he lived for over 10 years. Bryson decided, after he and his wife were leaving the UK to return to the States, to take one final trek around this “small island” and write about these farewell experiences. This was the first one of Bryson’s books that I read (I had heard of his bestselling books A Walk in the Woods and In A Sunburned Country about Appalachia and Australia respectively) and I chose this one to start with because of my love of England. I’m so glad I did. A combination of serious and critical views of modernism and how it has taken over the relics and sentiments of the past to very droll, yet side-splittingly funny little snippets of the everyday life of the British. I believe he was having fun with this, as if he was winking at his intended audience when something good was about to happen. I now have read his other books and they do possess the same sarcastic tone and are all well-written and hard to put down, but if you are an Anglophile, this one is the one to read!


My first exposure to Bill Bryson was "A Walk In The Woods" which is about his desire to leave modern America behind and go for a stroll along the Appalachian Trail. I love that book and found it to be hysterical and at other times very sensible in his commentary about the world around us."Notes From A Small Island" also reflects his desire to stroll through countrysides and insert some social commentary about the communities he encounters. But this time his location is Great Britain and it is a farewell tour of the country he called his home for over 20 years.Not being British and having never been to any part of Britain I must admit I was at a total loss for many of the references he makes about the culture (pop to political) and the language. I constantly felt like a bit of an outsider listening in to some great inside jokes that flew right over my head.But the sections where he described human nature in general, or the portions about Scotland where I did have some personal frame of reference thanks to a Scottish roommate in college, I found to be very funny and entertaining. It is obvious this book was written about Britain for a British audience and because of it I had a nice descriptive tour of the geography, the people and, of course, the wet weather.I was a little surprised by the sudden brash insertions of vulgarity and showy tell-offs of people who happened to annoy him. I don't really recall that style from my reading of "A Walk In The Woods" but maybe I just don't remember it because I was laughing too hard. I swear myself all the time so it wasn't offensive personally, but it felt like it was thrown in there purposefully to fit in or something.I also tired of his constant criticism of the architectural horrors - even though I agree with his frustration and anger about it. Just hammered that point a little too often for my tastes. I get it - stupid architects destroyed pieces of history left and right for shopping plazas which is blasphemy. More about the human interest please, which he writes very well.Overall the book was an easy read that could be picked up and put down without problem so it would be great to read on a commute or in between other books. It was entertaining enough but I would recommend more for people not completely clueless like me about Britain - the humor would be appreciated much more.


Bryson is like a lazy armchair traveler that actually gets up and goes to all of those places that we think we should see and usually don't. Unlike brisk capable travel writers like Rick Steves or Paul Theroux, Bryson seems more like us. He's a Goldilocks whining about soup that is too hot or the bed is too hard. Since he has such a critical sometimes whiny eye, when he does find the right fit like Edinburgh or Salisbury, I know I would love it too. The railway details got a bit dense but, overall it was delicious honey in a big steaming cup of Anglophile tea.

Carl Nelson

3.5 stars. Parts of it were beautiful portraits of a lovely country and its optimistic, polite inhabitants, written in masterful prose by an author with a gift for conveying the feeling of time and place. Other parts were pithy and witty observations of a likable curmudgeon in a culture that doesn't always make sense to an outsider. Other parts are smug, self-satisfied smartassery.I really enjoyed Bryson's depictions of the people he encountered, as he brought back very fond memories of my solo trip there when I was only a year or so out of college and the universal warmth with which the British and Welsh treated me. I found his descriptions of the landscape to be compelling, painting vivid mental imagery. The narrative was frequently repetitive: Bryson arrives in town X, finds substandard accommodations for the evening, reflects on how the town's glory days are long past, observes how the modern buildings are far uglier than the old ones they replaced, then finds comfort in the basic decency of its people and British-ness of the town. The parts I enjoyed least were of the "this town isn't something I personally like, so I can't see how anyone would like it, so I'm going to feel superior to it and its inhabitants" sort, and I didn't care for those.After reading and enjoying other Bryson volumes, I was really looking forward to this one, and I was sad to find this one to be a mixed bag. Too much of this book is about Bryson and his peccadillos (of which some are rather annoying) and too little about his subject, a mistake that many travel writers make.


Before returning to his native United States after a sojourn of some twenty years in England, Bryson decided to take a trip around that "small island." The hysterical comments in this book are the result. The British loved it so much it was a best-seller for months, and they turned it into a TV series. The book even includes a glossary of English terms. For example, do you know the difference between a village and a hamlet? One is a small town where people live, the other a play by Shakespeare!Bryson is certainly not your average travel writer - as anyone who has read my reviews of his other books knows - and despite his often scathing wit, it's never done with malice, even when very critical of a subject. What astounds me is Bryson's vigor and willingness to put up with all sorts of cold and wet weather. He made his trek during the off-season, i.e., late October, not an especially delightful time of year in Britain. He did not take a car, relying solely on buses and British Rail, a decision that often forced him to make long, out-of-the-way walks of as far as twenty miles, either because schedules didn'tcoincide, or the irregular bus did not run during the off-season.He delightfully intermingles political commentary with travelogue. He visits Blackpool, for example, where there are long beaches - that officially don't exist. "I am not making this up. In the late 1980s, when the European Community issued a directive about the standards of ocean-borne sewage, it turned out that nearly every British seaside town failed to come anywhere near even the minimum compliance levels. Most of the bigger resorts like Blackpool went right off the edge of the turdometer, or whatever they measure these things with. This presented an obvious problem to Mrs. Thatcher's government, which was loath to spend money on British beaches when there were perfectly good beaches in Mustique and Barbados, so it drew up an official decree -- this is so bizarre I can hardly stand it, but I swear it is true -- that Brighton, Blackpool, Scarborough, and many other leading resorts did not have, strictly speaking, beaches. Christ knows what it then termed these expanses of sand -- intermediate sewage buffers, I suppose -- but in any case it disposed of the problem without either solving it or costing the treasury a penny, which is of course the main thing, or in the case of the present government, the only thing."Then there's British Rail. On his way to Manchester, "we crept a mile or so out of the station, then sat for a long time for no evident reason. Eventually, a voice announced that because of faults further up the line this train would terminate in Stockport, which elicited a general groan. Finally, after about twenty minutes, the train falteringly started forward and limped across the green countryside. At each station the voice apologized for the delay and announced anew that the train would terminate in Stockport. When at last we reached Stockport, ninety minutes late, I expected everyone to get off, but no one moved, so neither did I. Only one passenger, a Japanese fellow, dutifully disembarked, then watched in dismay as the train proceeded on, without explanation and without him, to Manchester." No Bryson should be left unread.


Alas! After listening to this book on my commute, I got to the end of the last disc to find I'd been listening to an abridgement all along. /sighIn any case, I've read enough of Bryson to still enjoy every bit of it, though this was my first foray into his work via the audiobook. As an Anglophile who has yet to actually visit the United Kingdom, Notes from a Small Island was a pleasure to listen to. Bryson's slightly-snarky delivery amused me, and he could really be the only narrator for this type of travelogue. Having someone else narrate this personal narrative would have just felt like cheating.There were a couple of quirky things while I was listening (for instance, some exit-type music started playing near the end of the last disc -- but not at the actual end of the book), and some of Bryson's favorite phrases were all-too-apparent when read aloud ("I liked it a lot" is a phrase he often employs). However, I'd like to maybe read the book somewhere down the line -- perhaps after I've visited Britain myself.

Sarah Wingo

I needed something easy and fun to read during my breaks at work and just in general and this seemed perfect. The added touch of personal nostalgia was also a plus even if its publication predates my first experience in England by ten years. Pardon the vulgarity, but this is just too funny: "I'm the Eldest son or the Eldest son of the Eldest son of the Eldest son of the Guy Who Fucked Nell Gwyn." (even though it isn't technically correct since the English crown can and has been passed down to daughters when a son was unavailable)This book made me very happy. Part of me wonders how it took me so long to get around to reading it, but I'm glad it did because I really needed something light and fun to read, but that would also draw me in and make me want to keep reading. What a lovely man Bryson is. What I really loved about the book is the way in which he fully understands the "ways" of the English, has acquired himself a delightfully English sense of humor, and loves them deeply for all of their eccentricities. While at the same time as an American he can take a look at his adopted country with the eyes of well an American who has fallen in love with England. I found myself nodding along as I read thinking "YES!" at every turn. This book was delightful and I look forward to reading his others, it is light and perfect for travel reading or just when you need something easy to lose yourself in. I know that having lived in England it carried a certain nostalgia for me, but I'm certain people who have never even set foot in England will still enjoy it.


this was the first Bill Bryson I read and it made me cause attention to myself as I was literally laughing out loud on the Tube in London! The bit that stays with me the most is the difference between how men and women queue... men are all prepared with the exact amount of change counted out, proffering it to the person... women look all surprised and fumble for their purse, then rummage around for the right amount of Money...I think Bill Bryson is a sharp and witty observor of human beings.

Karen Hanson

This book started out well enough and I really had high hopes for it, but it pretty much tanked for me after that. Bryson claims that he loves Britain and thinks it’s amazing, but all I heard was a bunch of whining and complaining about it. Every building that wasn’t the original “Georgian” style he deemed as an ugly renovation done by idiotic architects. It seemed every town he traveled to was a dump. He doesn’t really do much but travel around by bus or train (of which he also complains), and then book a room in a crappy hotel for the night after which he “ambles” to some pub to drink a few beers and eat some “adequate” food. I swear if I heard him use the word “amble” one more time I was going to puke. He hates cars so he walks everywhere he goes and then complains when he gets rained on. HELLO. You’re in Britain. It rains there all the time! Bring a damn umbrella! Or how about some rain boots! GASP! Every so often he’d interrupt his soaked “ambling” to mention the Marks and Spencer jackets people were wearing or yell at some random person for a minor infraction. The thing is, the only time he says anything good about Britain is when mentioning how it was 20 years ago. I kid you not, the most excited he ever got about anything was when talking about an IMAX movie he went to… about AMERICA. I normally love Bill Bryson, but after this one, I think I’m going to take a break for a while.

Rena Jane

Bill Bryson's books always make me feel as though I've been introduced to the most interesting and enjoyable parts of wherever he takes me. This one was no different.Bryson drinks his fill, and occasionally to excess in pubs all over England and Scotland as he takes a farewell walking tour of his adopted Great Britian. His humor and compelling descriptions put you almost into the book with him. He tours famous museums, as well as little, off-road, seldom visited sites that we should all give a chance. He also rates the establishments he sleeps in, usually good, but he's afraid to be honest when he chances about a dive.The nostalgia he feels at leaving his adopted home comes through, also as he muses on how seldom he's visited some of these sites, and how worthy some are of repeated visits. Others, that have been touted for years as "must-see's" he gives short shrift, since in his opinion, they do not stand up to their glorified reputations.I enjoyed this book, and will probably reread it one day, especially if I ever have the good fortune to visit the Emerald Isles.


Slightly disappointed by this one, but i think that's a matter of raised expectations. I remember quite liking I'm a Stranger Here Myself and since this one directly deals with England (my true home away from home; i keep thinking someday i'll move back to London) i figured that gave me a lock on getting warm fuzzies from this.Problem is, while he spends a fair bit of time telling you what he loves about Britain, a lot of it is stuff that existed 20 years ago (when he first moved there). So we get a lot of "society has gone downhill" grumbling, along with the requisite "boy this rain is annoying" grumbling and the "i don't much like this town" grumbling. Makes it hard to see why he stayed there for 20 years. Actually, i do believe he loves the country, and since this book was written just before he & his family were to move to the US, a lot of his negativity probably came from knowing he was leaving "home". but did that make it fun for me to read? not so much as i had hoped.i'm not giving up on Mr. Bryson just yet; I still want to read A Short History of Nearly Everything (just waiting for it to come out in paperback) but it does make me want to find another book that lets me revel in my Anglophility...

Troy Blackford

Bill Bryson's books are always a great read, and this was no exception. My introduction to his books came from his factual presentations of information, and I'm always tickled at the disparity in tone between those books and the travelogues. It's clearly the same man, but he rightly feels more free to speak in his own language in these sorts of books, and that's very entertaining. A very funny, insightful, and at times charmingly curmudgeonly look at the country of England, from an American who had lived their for twenty years as our narrator undertakes an eight week travel across the country. Fascinating, and at times poignant and at other times the opposite of that (but in a good way!), this book is not to be missed.


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.


This book is so funny! I giggled all the way through. Being a Brit I just loved his experience of our guest houses, especially as the welcome at many of them hasn't changed one jot! He wrote the book C1995 so it is considerably out of date, but if you take that into consideration and want a really good laugh at the expense of the Brits and Americans then you'll love this one. I particularly enjoyed his struggle with the difference in our one who has experienced the difference during 10 years of living in Canada I know just how frustrating and amusing it can be!!

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