notes from a small island–bill bryson

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I ordered a number of Bill Bryson books after seeing the movie based on his book, A Walk in the Woods.  His character in the movie was likable and I could see myself enjoying his sarcastic travelogue style walk through Britain.  The calendar is nearing Spring Break for the education and parenting crowd and, although my budget does not allow significant travel this year, a person can dream–or travel through a book.  So it was I chose notes from a small island from my shelf of used books ordered from amazon.

I enjoyed the first chapter.  Bryson’s memories of previous travel in Britain called to mind my own travels as a college student from a very small rural town when I set off from my summer study abroad program to travel by train to Wales, where my parents had visited when I was 8 and come home with my youngest brother en suite.  I think I was driven to discover what had been so romantic that my sane adult parents had forgotten about birth control and wound up pregnant.

I am a person raised in an atmosphere in which sarcasm was the coin of the realm and use of sarcasm at an early age was seen as a sign of prodigy.  Sarcasm’s fine edge was honed at my dinner table with good humored fun as we skewered one another’s foibles.  I appreciate sarcasm.  However, somewhere in chapter two, I became uncomfortable with Bryson’s sarcastic portrayal of people and the land.  As I read on, his sarcasm seemed less witty and more unfairly condescending and, at times, just mean without basis.

Understandably, then, I have more appreciation for the chapters and the sections in which he waxes poetic about the land and the character of the British people.  He is nearly vicious about the fundraising efforts of those in charge of Salisbury Cathedral after calling it the most beautiful structure in England.  His description of the hideous displays and calls for donations paint an image of a structure anything but beautiful (and, having visited Salisbury Cathedral on my college-student trek I echo his assessment of its beauty with more understanding for the realities underpinning the open calls for donations).  However, his portrayal of Durham Cathedral, which no one visits, is soft and alluring.  When Bryson writes as he does of Durham, I can feel again my own wonder at walking into a beautiful building or coming upon an breathtaking vista.  This is what I want from good travel writing.  The disappointments of travel are just that–disappointments.  I am not sure I need to have such a good measure of them in travel literature.  I did not skip those sections, either, because his good bits were so good I did not want to miss any that were hidden in the dross.

I recently read a brief review of his newest book on  England and perhaps that prejudiced me, as that reviewer commented on Bryson’s sarcasm and felt that it made the book nearly unenjoyable.  I have a suspicion that Bryson’s work would read better as an audio book, where tone of voice could soften or bring out the attempt at humor in the more sarcastic bits.  Bill Nighy would seem a wonderful voice for Bryson’s words.

I will read more Bryson, in part because I have already purchased several of his books, and in part because I want to return to England on the cheap on his Road to Little Dribbling.

Finished 2/24/16

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2 thoughts on “notes from a small island–bill bryson

  1. Hmmmm. This is a book that would interest me–I have fond memories of traveling in Britain–but I think the sarcasm would probably be too much for my taste. Thanks for the review.

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