Classic Travel Lit 4: Bill Bryson


Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Destination: England

Book: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (audio book reviewed)

I’m playing catch up with some travel classics.  With the exception of Bruce Chatwin‘s Patagonia, I had not read the highly recommended classic travel literature that I have talked about this week.

Many travelers list Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (2000) among their favorites for a travel library. When World Hum listed Bryon’s Australian book as one of the best travel books, writer and editor Tom Zwick groused in the comments that Bryson “…writes about himself rather than about the place to which he travels.”

My library had the audiotape of Notes from a Small Island, so I decided to find out which faction I agreed with (travel-writer Zwick, or seemingly the rest of the travel-reading world). I was happy to start with England rather than Australia, because I’ve been to England (although briefly) and my only time in Australia involved changing planes.

In the book, Bill Bryson takes a farewell tour of Britain.  He had lived the expatriate life for many years before he and his British wife decided to move to America with their children. I found Notes from a Small Island to be charming and packed with the kind of detail that helps make the unfamiliar become at least understandable.  The addiction to inane TV shows, the mysterious enthusiasm for bland desserts, the belief that their island is far away from any other land mass, became endearing in Bryson’s telling. Rather than being bored with hearing about his own experiences, actions and reactions, I felt that he deepened my understanding of the people he met along the way.

For the most part he skips the obvious tourist haunts–no Anne Hathaway Cottage, for instance.  And although he does wander through Oxford, he does not recommend a visit. Instead he heads for places that have some personal meaning for him.  Yes, he’s weaving in his memoir and taking us along to places that he chooses for his own sometimes random reasons.  But doesn’t any travel narrative do that?

I sat with my spiral-cover large-scale Michelin road Atlas of the British Isles in front of me as the audio tape played, and followed his route from Dover to Wales and then through Scotland to the farthest north tip of Great Britain.  What fun it would be to literally follow his footsteps, perhaps skipping the things he found painfully ugly and pointless. On the other hand, it would be equally amusing to visit those places and see if he missed any redeeming features.

Bryson loves the English people, despite his making fun of their most un-American habits. He loves London, although he spends very little time talking about central London. (The City) I wish that he would do a guide just of London.

Notes from a Small Island brims over with statistics about population density and number of passenger trains, but he frequently apologizes for these factual diversions.  My husband lost patience with the longish introduction which is all about Bryson and his newspaper jobs before he actually got on the road.

But if you are truly looking for a book to inform you about England and inspire you to travel to lesser known parts of the small island, then read Notes from a Small Island.

(Photo by Phil Leftwich, from Flickr, Creative Commons license)

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

6 thoughts on “Classic Travel Lit 4: Bill Bryson

  1. What a great variety of opinions about Bill Bryson! Sounds like Liz might not have liked him because his satire cut too close–and we don’t like somebody from another country satirizing us, no matter how long they’ve lived among us.
    In defense of Tom Zwick, I don’t think he would advocate that the travel writer not be very personal in his work. His objection was that Bill Bryson wrote about Bill Bryson rather than about Australia in that particular book.

  2. I have not read a lot of Bryson, but what I have encountered has often left me breathless with laughter. My overall impression of travel literature is that it immediately breaks into two types: The tour books give you the information you need to plan (and execute) a trip — things like what to see, how much things cost, when things are open, how to get around. They are invaluable when you are making a trip. The other is more the personal experience book, and this is what Bryson writes. If I were planning a trip to Britain I probably wouldn’t depend on Bryson to develop my itinerary, although I would read him to get a feeling for the people and places and maybe learn about some things that I might otherwise miss. But if I want to take an “armchair” trip to Britain, this book would be my first choice. So to answer the question of whether this is a travel book or not, I guess it depends on what you want — something to help plan a trip or something to convey some of the experience of being there. And get a laugh. I still want to try “haggis vindalu”.

  3. The Bill bryson i picked up was lost continent where he does a road trip across America. A single book isn’t a great judge- but i do think he tends to get repititive. I wasn’t too too thrilled – but I do hope to try him once again!

  4. I love Bill Bryson; I am an American married to a Brit, and we have lived in both countries. He gets it so right, making fun of the Brits and the Americans, as well as himself. I think travel narratives of this sort need to include the author, otherwise you’re reading a standard travel guide. Both have their place in travel lit.

  5. I read Notes from a Small Island a long time ago and didn’t really enjoy it at the time. I guess (being English) I’m not really in the target audience. Although some of my friends found it very funny. The description of Liverpool’s ‘litter festival’ was a nice way of putting it!

    In general, though, personal experiences are what I enjoy most about travel writing. I think they are where you get the best insights into what a new place is really like – the sights, the smells, how people behave in a certain situation. Of course you see it through the lens of the narrator, but then it’s impossible not too see a new culture through some kind of cultural lens.

  6. Bill Bryson is one of my favorite travel authors. Although I haven’t read Notes from a Small Island, his book on hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, is one of my all time favorites. His sense of humor is what attracts me, I think. Now I can add another of his books to my list. Thanks for introducing me to Notes From a Small Island.

    By the way, my maiden name is Leftwich. Wonder if I’m related to your photographer, Phil Leftwich?

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