BOOK REVIEW: Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

When the O Family was in South Africa recently Mr O found a book by Bill Bryon in our Air BnB called A Short History of Nearly Everything. He had finished the books he brought with him to read so he decided to give it a go. He absolutely loved it and kept giving me little snippets that he was enjoying. 

When I was looking for a book to read on my very long Goodreads to read list, I came across Notes From a Small Island and decided it was definitely worth a go.

The premise of the book is simple. Bill Bryson is an American journalist who lived for a long time in the UK with his family. On the eve of the family moving back to the USA, Bryson decides to take a trip around the country by rail and on foot to say goodbye and record his observations.

I figured as an “ex-pat” who has lived in the UK, Bryson and I would have some things in common and that a humorous poke at the charming idiosyncrasies of the different regions of this country I now call home would be really fun.

I was wrong.

I think there were two main problems. First of all Notes on a Small Island was published in 1995. A lot of things have changed in the last seventeen years. I first arrived in the UK in 2004 and a lot of what Bryson is going on about isn’t a thing anymore and hasn’t been at any time during my residence. The the second problem is that I don’t think I was the target audience anyway.  Bill Bryon is essentially a grumpy middle-aged man taking the view that most things around him are changing in a way he doesn’t understand and isn’t it funny but also quite annoying? Reading this book was a bit like listening to my dad talk about shopping malls. In fact, I think my dad would love this book.

Most of the way through this book I just kept thinking “well what did you expect?” and “cheer the fuck up” and “ugh get over yourself”. There are funny moments and it is well written. Plus, Bryon’s affection for a country that he is probably always going to be slightly baffled by is rather endearing. I was glad when it was over though and I don’t think I want to read anymore of his books. Soz, Bill.





  1. I read this book when it came out (I was 44, I think) and loved it! I thought his observations were witty and incisive, and felt a great deal of affection coming from the pages. Almost 22 years later, things have indeed changed a great deal. We have become a lot more lie America, for one thing. It was of its time, and wouldn’t really work as well now.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I know lots of people loved this and it has classic status. It just didn’t really chime for me like I thought it was going to.

      1. Perhaps because you are from South Africa? I’m not sure that’s relevant, but it was something different back then. We could laugh at ourselves, for a change.

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